Thursday, June 22, 2006

Moving Forward Through Imaging Software

I tell you,dear readers, it's difficult to come up with topics for a photography blog,week after week. Especially if you don't have a lot of free time to devote to keeping up with the demands of writing. Hell, I barely call this writing. I don't write from an outline any longer, and I often don't proofread what I write, I just hit "Publish Post". Nope, typos are legion here in this space. And the topics are generally fairly casually arrived at.

But one subject I think about probably NOT as much as I should is imaging software. Yeah, software for things related to imaging. "Software is where it's at these days," is a phrase I often repeat to myself. We're on the brink of Nikon Capture NX,which is said to be capable of editing not only Nikon camera files, but also JPEG and TIF files created by cameras other than Nikons. If the upcoming shipping product is as good as the pre-release write-ups indicate, Nikon might have a real sales hit on its hands. The new Control Point concept Nikon is premiering in Capture NX looks to me to be VERY promising; so promising in fact that I think Adobe will do its best to try and come up with something very similar,as soon as they can.

The Nikon NEF file is a wonderful file format to capture to, yet Nikon owes its users a MUCH better software product than they have ever offered. Nikon Capture 4.1 to 4.4 have been slow and crash-prone and unduly buggy; sequential update requirements for the Mac OS have been rather odd from Nikon, and Mac OS support for Nikon software products is nothing short of disgraceful. The only company that has a worse record for Macintosh support is probably FujiFilm, with its Hyperutilities suite and its lamentable record for FAILURE TO INSTALL under MOST of the various versions of Mac OS X for a pretty significant chunk of real-world users. At this point, I just want to line up and pay my damned $129 and get a new,decent,stable copy of a Nikon raw conversion software application,on a CD-ROM. And did I mention the Control Points concept Nikon has invented? I see the Control Point concept as being as important as the healing brush in Photoshop was....I really think the new Nikon interface and control concepts ideveloped for NX look very,very promising.

One of the biggest advances in imaging over the past three years has been the field of raw conversion software. Adobe,as well as much smaller,third-party developers have been inventing all sorts of raw conversion software,some of which does a great job,and some of which is designed with modern digital photography workflow techniques in mind. One of my most recent discoveries is the Automator software in the newest version of Mac OS X. Thank you MSW for the introduction to Automator basics; since that time two weeks ago,I've learned how to perform all sorts of exacting,complicated,and tedious Photoshop operations using this wonderful new Automator software and a large folder full of actions for Photoshop CS-2.

Reading books and articles and web-based tutorials on Photoshop techniques is how I am now trying to move my own photography forward. I want to become better-skilled and better-informed about ways to make my pictures better. And I want to learn how to take advantage of a number of specific Photoshop skills which I do not posses at this time. I guess you could say that I am now trying to figure out ways in which I can advance my photography by better use of imaging software.

A while back I took the opportunity to run a week's worth of raw captures through three different raw conversion applications. It was an eye-opening experience to see the differnet interpretations of my raw files,as seen through the filter of the entirely different raw decoding engines,each of which yielded distinctly _different_ results. I'm convinced that software is where it's at. And I'm determined to learn how to better use software over the coming months.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sony Announces its First D-SLR

So, Sony announces its first D-SLR and it's a 10.2 megapixel model with a body-integral anti-shake system AND a body-integral sensor shake-off system that actually "shakes" dust off of its high-tech-oxide specially-coated low pass filter's front surface,which keeps dust from getting adhered on there by means of low attraction properties inherent in that oxide coating's makeup. Nifty idea. Seems like Kodak used the same oxide type in their DCS 760 D-SLR's sensor, if memory serves me correctly.

Oh, and the price-it's LOW! There's also the cachet of a couple of soon-to-be manufactured Zeiss high-dollar prime lenses, and whatever cachet there might be associated with the lineup of "Alpha-mount" (Minolta A in other words) lenses,the Sony name, and a few nifty features which make this sub-$1,000 US dollar digital SLR look like a very attractive selling proposition to me. I personally see this camera as being slotted somewhat ABOVE the entry-level bodies, yet really priced to sell due to its entry-level price point, but with much more pro-sumer appeal than either the Digital Rebel or Nikon D50 bodies. The fact that the A100's body comes onto the market with a price that's $700 cheaper than a Nikon D200 body,well I see this newly announced Sony d-slr offering as constituting a fairly attractive camera, at a very attractive price point for those who are willing to go along with the Sony aka MINOLTA system's lens offerings.

But what about the proprietary Minolta-ONLY flash foot that Minolta, then Konica-Minolta used?? Why,pray tell Sony,is that proprietary flash foot still with us? Cripes Sakes, that was one of the DUMBEST things Minolta could have EVER designed into its system. Bastardizing their camera's flash foot and making it incompatible with flash units that integrate onto ALL other brands of cameras was a questionable decision made at Minolta HQ. Deciding to go with a proprietary electronic flash foot was like Minolta willingly dosing itself with the measles, just to see what it feels like to do something,well,really stupid. Why is Sony still relying on the unique Minolta-K-M proprietary flash hot shoe? Impartial observers will grant that Sony has had trouble before with plug-ins and standards and dead-end formats before, but a truly innovative camera company will jettison anything that holds it back (do the names Betamax and Sony Memory Stick format ring any bells?). It's hard to gauge,precisely, how much of a knock a proprietary flash foot is to a camera, but there are consumers willing to overlook this 'feature' in exchange for other 'features',and so on and so on.

Still,despite the lame Minolta, er Konica-Minolta,err SONY proprietary flash shoe, from what I have gathered by reading the early hands-on previews of the A100, I view Sony's first d-slr offering as a nice camera for under a thousand dollars,with a lens. While apparently the AF system in pre-production units was not that good, the camera apparently feels well-made and solid and handles nicely,with good operational speed for a 3 fps d-slr. Oh, and did I mention, it has 10.2 megapixels, for under a thousand dollars? It's hard to understand how the AF system could be anything but the same,or a bit better than what was in the earlier Minolta offerings,and pre-release reports are notoriously vague and unreliable,and are sometimes I think, deliberately-planted lies by interested parties.

In 2005,I tested the Konica-Minolta 7D's anti-shake system,and for me it did a good job with a 28-90mm lens at speeds down to the 1/6 to 1/8 second range hand-held, with the anti-shake giving me good sharpness.If I owned ANY decent glass in Minolta A mount, I would have to strongly consider this a must-buy camera. Unless of course I happened to be in the market for a more higher-end d-slr model similar to the Nikon D200 or something like that. I expect that a future Sony d-slr model will be slotted into the lineup to replace the current K-M 7D,with its complete control set, accessory grip, and that body's superb ANALOG-TYPE knob input systems with the amazing pre-set control knob system that nobody but K-M has been able to create. I think Sony is capable of realizing a very nice camera for discerning camera enthusiasts if they try and re-work the 7D. I was very impressed by the K-M 7D's design, engineering,and build,as well as its feel,ergonomic friendliness,and its super-duper viewfinder system and good eye relief with eyeglasses. If Sony builds on the base of the older 7D body as its mid-point, or moves to digify a Maxxum 9-level body, I think they will have a good chance to build a base of discerning clientele.

But basically, I see Sony as being very price-point driven with the new A100 camera. Sony needs to do "something" to generate some excitement about the first Sony d-slr,and 10.2 megapixels at the lowest price on the market is one way to get consumers talking. Ten-point-two sounds like a lot of megapixels to most people. The body price point also leaves a potential Sony buyer with $700 of extra cash in his pocket to buy lenses compared with say the Nikon D200. Having a built-in anti-shake system is a benefit to many people,and they realize that. Extra cash for accessories is a HUGE sales inducement,in my experience behind the camera sales counter. With the Alpha's initial pricing point,the price of the product is not really as important as the price DIFFERENCE between it and,say, the 30D or the D200. THe newly announced Sony beats Nikon,Canon,and Pentax-branded entry levels on MegaPixels,so...that means it competes with...the other 10MP camera, the Nikon D200. Consumer Logic.

The new dynamic range computation and image quality maximization thing Sony's talking about? Hmmmm....gosh if that works, it'll be nice. And they say this is done in hardware? Hmmm. And Sony has followed Canon's lead in naming the image processing chip,with the name Bionz (WTF Sony, were your focus group leaders all tyrannical dipshits or something? Bionz? C'mon.) Okay,so far Sony has shown it can copy some of Canon Digital's marketing strategies. Somewhat. But this dynamic range thing--I say, show me, make me believe. If it's some sophisticated auto tone-curve assignment, I say, bring it on,let's see whatcha' got Sony. Even if it's hype, well, the market thrives on hype,right? Enough people will buy a well-hyped product or feature and will pop the plastic onto the counter after enough impressions.

As I see it, individual camera maker lens lines are less valuable than they used to be as System Merit points. Sigma, Tamron,and Tokina all make lenses which can fulfill the needs of MOST users,so I think for many buyers the availability of disireable SIGMA and TOKINA ultra-wides and macro lenses are attractive propositions in their own right.The vibrant,robust,thriving 3rd partty lens climate with Sigma,Tamron,and Tokina is a very good thing; if I were to want an ultra-wide I could have my choice of excellent 3rd party ultra-wides, AND some very,very fine 3rd party macro lenses from Sigma,Tamron,and Tokina, as well as some specialty zoom lenses like the 80-400 Sigma OS and the 50-500 Sigma,or the 120-300 Sigma,or the super Tamron macro lenses. I hope Sony has good sales success with the A100....I hope they sell the shit out of them,and make Canon and Nikon respond in kind. For the megapixel-counting customers, Sony's 10.2 MP at under $900 versus the always sold-out Nikon D200 at $1699 is a no-brainer. As Herbert Keppler said in a recent Popular Photography column, the lowest-priced d-slr bodies tend to win out over more costly models. Nikon's D70 and Canon's Digital Rebel have been absolutely HUGE,huge sellers for the two giants,and I see Sony as having made a very solid product here,at a great price point. The price point for the SAME MP count, 10.2, as the D200 seems like no coincidence at all to me,and with potential Sony customers mentally turning over what lenses and accessories another $700 will buy as compared to the D200, I see a lot of people opting for the Sony. When those same people mentally compare $1699 PLUS lens costs, they will push the prie difference between the A100 and the D200 to around $1,000 or even as high as $1,700,depending on how much glass they wish to acquire with whatever d-slr body they buy into.

I think there are people who could find happiness with the Sony A100 with a kit zoom and a decent flash,and they'll probably buy this camera in good numbers. If Sony is smart, they'll realize the 7D and the 35mm film Maxxum 9 are solid camera offerings which need only a few things done better in order to be very,very viable camera platforms and they will use what R&D Minolta had done to bing those designs to digital under the Sony marque. I want to wish Sony a lot of luck in the d-slr field,since I think healty competition benefits everybody. Now that I think about it, Konica-Minolta getting out of the way is probably a good thing, for the sake of the cameras themselves. The leadership at Minolta has commited some major boo-boos over the past decade. APS-C,anybody???

It will be truly interesting to see what all the fuss is about with regard to the new dynamic range hardware optimization Sony is claiming it can do, and it will also be interesting to see what the heck happens in the d-slr market in 2006 and 2007. The d-slr market is at a very interesting stage right now,and I feel like several of the assumed paradigms are due for overthrow next year,in 2007. Conventional wisdom seems to be that Sony cannot make a go of it in the d-slr arena. I'm not so sure that that is really true; look at the vast number of Nikon D200 sales that have NOT happened simply because Nikon cannot meet the market's actual demand for D200 bodies,in stock,in stores,ready for sale. The damned D200 has been out of stock for months,even at my local area pro dealership. If Sony can deliver product (and that is not a given) reliably,at under $1K, and salesman in major metro area camera stores are telling you that the next D200 bodies are promised to waiting list customers, well, Sony will kick Nikon's ass in terms of sales. It'll be interesting to see the Sony versus Pentax situation shape up over the next six months or so.