Friday, December 22, 2006

Better Low-Cost D-SLR's and The Wife's First D-SLR

Phil Askey not that long ago reviewed the Pentax K100D on his web site at He wrote that the Pentax K100D has, "stepped ahead of the D50 with better definition of fine detail," and his review's now-well-known sample comparison images allow the reader to, as he wrote, " your way down the crops and see a real difference in the amount of information delivered." (Better detail delivered by the K100D over the Nikon D50's level of detail.)

I have to agree---the Askey samples in the review show pretty convincingly that the Pentax K100D does deliver a BETTER IMAGE than the Nikon D50 does,in several different categories. The Pentax K100D also acquits itself VERY well at 800 and 1600 sensitvity settings,as shown in the samples on page 22 of the dPreview review at To my eye, the Pentax K100D offers the best Out of Camera 800 and 1600 JPEG image characteristics between the cameras compared there.

Similarly,in his very newest camera review, Askey points out a VERY SIMILAR, almost identical to my eye, improvement in the Nikon D40's out of camera JPEG image quality over the Nikon D50's out of camera JPEG image quality. The dPreview review of the Nikon D40 begins at

and on page 19 of the D40 review, Askey notes "how far in-camera image processing has come." It's worth stopping by.

Funny thing--on page 20 of the D40 review, Askey wrote: " Just over two weeks ago I was quite happy to proclaim the Pentax K100D as having the best image quality of any six megapixel, well looking at this comparison I may have to say that the D40 has just edged the K100D off its throne. In each crop we can see the D40 has a slight edge in detail along with a complete lack of artifacts (there are a few jaggies in the K100D image)."

So, two weeks ago, Phil Askey proclaimed the Pentax K100D had, and this is a direct quote, "the best image quality of any six megapixel." But now that the Nikon D40 has been evaluated, Askey has written that the D50 has edged the K100D off the throne as having the best image quality in the six megapixel category. And keep in mind that during the testing of the D40,Adobe Camera RAW was not able to offer D40 raw file decoding, so the image quality comparisons Askey has made have been based upon the Nikon D40's out-of-camera JPEGs doing the "work" to earn the title of best image quality from a six megapixel camera.

Why is this important? Because the K100D and D40 are very,very inexpensive d-slr cameras, and it has now been demonstrated that image processing in the camera,if it is done using state-of-the-art technology, ELEVATES the resolution of the six megapixel class sensors over what we've had since 2003,and over immediate predecessor models,from both Pentax and from Nikon. The Nikon D40 kit retails for $599 WITH AN 18-55mm Nikkor ZOOM LENS!!!! Also,I think it's refreshing to see how good the high-ISO images from the Pentax K100D look,particularly at ISO 800 and 1600. The Pentax K100D's high-ISO shots look snappier,sharper,and clearer than what Canon is offering in the same class, and a bit better than Nikon is offering at those two high ISO settings. This is all good news,since improved image processing,lower noise,and better pictures are what hobbyists,and professionals,want. At ever-lower prices.

Both the K100D and the Nikon D40 reviews show that it IS POSSIBLE for a six megapixel sensor to make a very good image,particularly when the very latest capabilities in signal processing and demosaicing and image processing and sharpening are all carefully implemented by the manufacturers. Newer is better. That kind of sums up the d-slr image quality paradigm,at least in my experience. Newer cameras with newer sensors usually deliver HIGHER IMAGE QUALITY than their immediate predecessor models,even when the same sensor is used in the old and the newer camera models. It now seems that image processing,at least in the newest Pentax and Nikon models, has been improved quite readily apparently to the human eye,and that the manufacturers are able to wring MORE out of the same old sensors,in part by improving demosaicing routines, and by better sharpening routines, and by improving the in-camera image PROCESSING routines and their overall quality. The lines of resolution both the Pentax and Nikon 6MP models are capable of delivering are still in what I'd term the 6MP class,rez-wise, but there's no doubt that looking at the Askey samples that the NEWER Pentax and the NEWER Nikon d-slr models are doing MORE with the SAME basic sensors used in prior cameras. Pentax went from simply dreadful OOC JPEG quality to class-leading OOC JPEG Image Quality. Then almost immediately, Nikon took the economy D50's OOC JPEG image quality and took it from extremely good to class-leading with the same imager in the D40. In other words, Pentax and Nikon have now figured out how to create and process 6MP JPEG images to levels that are better than what we've seen before in the 6MP class of d-slr.

The D40's boost in Image Quality over the D50's IQ is impressive. It's nice to think that the lowest-cost,most-basic Nikon d-slr offers class-leading image quality. That really makes me happy! The K100D's 1600 ISO out of camera images were impessive to me--sharp,detailed,and with good tonality, and a really nice feeling of information; the Canon Rebel XTi's higher ISO images looked less-sharp,but low-noise and clean, yet with lowered contrast and a flatter look out of camera t han the Pentax images. One could argue that the Canon and Nikon entry-level ($699 and $599 respectively,w/kit zoom) d-slr models offer a less-processed out of camera JPEG than Pentax makes at 1600, but frankly, I think the K100D's higher-ISO look is damned good out of camera, with the Canon and Nikons being merely very good.
This is indeed a great time to be interested in digital photography. I think the big strides in image processing combined with rather weak (non-destructive) anti-aliasing filter arrays Askey refers to is the last remaining,obvious, way to boost IQ while still maintaining 6MP sensor size on crop-field SLR bodies. Make sure the AA filter doesn't soften the images up too terribly much, and work at doing the BEST-possible demosaicing and the best-possible image processing and sharpening,and you've got yourself a damned fine 6MP imager. Simple,huh? But it hasn't been done,until recently.

While a lot of people look ONLY at the resolution figures in the dPreview reviews, it is important to look at the PICTURES as well, to see how cameras with similar chart resolution figures can have different IMAGE quality. Basically, test charts are test charts. What's important to realize is that image artifacts can plague in-camera JPEGs, and also that the way a camera handles resolution ABOVE the extinction limit determines how well textures are rendered. It's possible for two cameras to have very,very similar test chart resolution figures, but for one camera to consistently create a CLEARLY SUPERIOR image on real-world subjects. A good case in point is the Nikon D50 and Nikon D40...the D40's images are now very much free from the JPEG artifacting that was present in the D50's images. Not that the D50 was "bad"; no, the artifacting was slight, but definitely there. Even though both cameras have similar test chart resolution averages, the actual _pictures_ made by the D40 show an improvement in image quality over and above what the D50 produced. As resolution figures go higher and higher, it's important to look at the PICTURES a camera makes, to see how it handles the information above the extinction resolution. Resolution and noise figures are interesting,yes, but the PICTURES are what really counts, and this is one area where FujiFIlm has done a good job--making good-looking pictures with the S1,S2,and S3 Pro models.

I now have even higher hopes for the Fuji S5 Pro than I had even a few weeks ago! The image processing and image quality boosts that Pentax and Nikon have achieved in their newest, economy-priced models gives me a good feeling that FujiFilm engineers have also done their best to improve and optimize the AA filter system of the their patented SuperCCD-SR sensor in the upcoming S5 Pro model.

I happened to speak with a FujiFilm field representative this week,and he said , "end of February" in response to my question, "When do YOU think we'll actually be able to buy an S5 in stores?" Actually, I think that's reasonable, given the time frame of the D200 element, the cessation of S3 Pro's production recently in order to clear the channel of remaining inventory,etc,etc. Anyway, the Askey review of the D40, the sample crop comparisons,and the low price and small physical SIZE and weight (16 oz, w/o battery) made me opt for a Nikon D40 kit and an SB-600 for my wife's special Christmas present. I bought her a 1 gig SD card also,and she owns two 512 MB SD cards from her Minolta Vectis camera. I hope she likes the camera; her shooting has improved a lot over the last couple years,and now low-light AF problems and poor AF performance in general and erratic exposures in tricky lighting are hampering her. Compact bridge-type cameras like her Minolta Vectis are simply not as fast-operating as any SLR,and I think the D40's an excellent,SMALL slr camera, so I hope it works out for her.

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