Words - Industry - Digital cameras engage ‘fast-forward’


Digital cameras engage ‘fast-forward’

In the wake of this year’s Focus on Imaging show and with ever more sensibly priced digital cameras and accessories, including CCD pixel counts approaching 14m, John Chillingworth doubts if non-believers in digital capture still feel comfortable with their heads in the sand.

The claims of true digital parity with film are getting louder. Juggling for global market dominance by major manufacturers goes on - and with it, downward thrust on price and upward pressure on specification.
Where will it all end? Well, for the professional photographer, certainly not in tears, but wait – we all know that a high specification digital camera is only one vital link in a ‘matching set’ chain of expenditure!

For some working photographers, the economic argument for digital imaging remains debatable when, for a start, it is the specification of your laptop and the level of colour management you need, are added to the investment list.

Picking over the hardware and sounding knowledgeable about the whole gamut of requirements, which make up the photographer’s digital armoury, would fill a book.

Instead, identifying the essence, reading the runes and translating the implications of rapid change, will open the door to digital opportunities for each and every reader.

Decisive actions
Here’s an example. Simply hold a Contax 645 AF camera in you hands and confidence rises. See the results from its range of inimitable T* Zeiss lenses and you will wonder at the quality and the ‘class’, which they exude.

Examine the claims for the digital version of the Contax 645 and the list of advantages over competing hardware demands serious attention by anyone moving into digital imaging.

As important as any feature is the massive advantage of being able to use virtually any one of the highly sophisticated digital backs on the market, including Phase 1, the Kodak DCS…, Imacon, Eye-lite, Leaf and others.

Evidence of the importance of such good lateral thinking is in the fact that Venture, the highly successful ‘do exactly as I say’ social photography group has purchased a total of sixty Contax 645 D cameras for its strictly disciplined adherents

Operating in a very different way, The Lightportraiture Group, chaired by that highly independent and ‘battle-hardened’ professional, Roger Harvey, whose colleagues meet him on a regular basis to exchange ideas and review opportunities, speaks of already having had the advantages of a competing 645 presented to them.

The group members, did not did not take too kindly to the concept. They found it difficult to imagine a typical wedding shoot, climbing a tree or balancing on a ladder with a laptop strapped to their waist.

Instead, they are warming to the idea of inviting Frazer Allen of Kyocera Contax UK to explain the advantages – and there are many - of the Contax 645 D. One can visualise further sales as a result!

Amongst Frazer Allen’s other marketing challenges is to present the Contax N1D as a professional tool. “It is a first class piece of kit” he says, “ideally suited to operating in controlled studio conditions.”

Blessed with what is known to be a Philips sensor of limited capability - 125 ASA is the fastest simulated shutter speed – the N1D is unlikely to have found favour with digital imagers of the more active kind. He is, however, still determined to talk up its good points to anyone prepared to listen.

Hasselblad, meanwhile, having launched its much trumpeted H1, the beautifully engineered 645 built for them in Japan, believe that they are on to a winner. It is equally at home, they say, in the film and digital worlds although with its digital back in place, complete with its umbilical cord it will probably prove to be most at home in the studio.

Compatible with 70% of current digital backs, Hasselblad is keen to point out that the H1 provides handling and functionality similar to that of an integrated digital camera. It will be interesting to see how many professionals are convinced by claims for its unique design features and superb lenses, which are said to make the H1 the ultimate cross-platform camera.

In a very different league, according to Kodak, is their new Professional DCS Pro 14n Digital Camera. Trumpeting its (late) arrival, its primary claim is that of it being the industry’s first full 35mm size CMOS sensor, with a total of 13.89 pixels.

Designed, they say, for professional portrait, wedding, event and commercial photography, its Firewire connectivity, at a 12 MB per second transfer rate, is up to four times faster than Kodak’s previous DCS cameras.

At first sight it is a somewhat bulky piece of kit, but it claims to provide medium format quality and enlargement capabilities, with no lens magnification factor.

Fierce competition in this area of imaging has meant that – at last – Kodak have adjusted their pricing policy. Such developments make it worth a second, third and fourth glance, because there is clearly a lot of camera for your money!

A marriage of inconvenience
Kodak and Olympus, it seems, have agreed on a new common standard for digital cameras. Right now, there is little indication that other manufacturers of professional level digital SLR’s have adjusted their thinking.

For that matter, from the initial announcement just what Olympus and Kodak hope to achieve with their ‘Four Thirds System’ is far from clear.

Presumably, a larger 4/3inch image sensor, not locked into the 35mm format, will facilitate the development of dedicated digital camera lens systems, which maximise the image sensor performance, ensuring outstanding image quality in cameras smaller than existing 35mm film SLR camera lens systems.

Just what one achieves by standardising lens mount systems, apart from restricting the freedom of the designer to create dedicated digital camera lenses, which independently compete in quality and scope in the global marketplace is hard to fathom.

A good current example of manufacturing enterprise is in the recent widely publicised development announcement by Nikon of a new compact, lightweight G-type ultra-wide angle zoom lens designed exclusively for Nikon digital SLRs, the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED.

The first of a range of DX Nikkor lenses, it is an ultra-wide angle 2x zoom lens featuring a focal length starting at 12mm (18mm for D1-series and D100) for greater covering power. It offers the same high performance as more cumbersome 35mm format lenses. The new lens also incorporates Nikon’s exclusive built-in SWM (Silent Wave Motor) for fast, quiet autofocus operation.

Scheduled to be released in the spring of 2003, it is somewhat obvious that Nikon intends to continue on it own majestic way!

The Canon boom
Visitors to the Canon stand at Focus on Imaging will, no doubt, have been regaled with the news that they have a new DIGIC processor on their G3, S45 and IXUS V3 cameras for the amateur market.

Of meatier interest would, again, have been the Canon EOS-1Ds, first seen at Photokina. Introduced as the world’s first full frame professional digital camera with an 11.1Mg CMOS sensor, it is said to capture astounding detail and colour, with almost double the resolution provided by other digital SLR cameras.

Canon Consumer Imaging’s Mark Robinson says, “The world’s professional photographers will see that the EOS-Ds means that digital output can rival the quality produced by 35mm film. This latest development has enabled us to expand the range significantly, to offer the choice of speed with the 1D or exceptional resolution with the 1Ds.”

Fuji – The fourth generation
Accolades continue to be received by Fujifilm for the success of its FinePix S2 Pro, the sturdy and reliable professional tool, which is finding favour with many photographers being drawn inexorably into the digital camp by client demand and escalating cost of traditional image-making.

However, research and development continues apace and focusing its massive resources on the future, Fuji launched two Fourth Generation Super CCD HR two months ago.

With the aim of accommodating the resolving power of the FinePix S2 Pro, in much smaller camera bodies, the first of the new sensors will be 94mm in size, with an effective resolution of 3.1m pixels and an output resolution of 6m.

The second, a 14.9mm sensor with an effective resolution of 6m pixels, will have an output resolution of 12m pixels.

Differing from a normal CCD, the Super CCD SR uses a new CCD arrangement, based on the diagonally mapped, octagonal sensor arrangement pioneered in earlier Fuji Super CCD’s. The difference is in the fact that not one, but two photodiodes capture information on the same area of the image. All one can say is, “To hell with conformity!”

Sigma knows its place
No stretch of the imagination is needed, to appreciate that since Sigma launched its SD9 digital SLR, with the Foveon X3 sensor and a price-tag of around £2,000, the rest of the industry has been galvanised into more and more research. Most of it into the delivery of high resolution sensors for similarly priced high end digital cameras.

Ask Sigma if they are disappointed that the magical Foveon X3 Technology has not swept the competition off the map and you would find them faintly amused.

“At no time,” says Graham Armitage, business development manager at Sigma UK, “has Sigma visualised competing with the Canons and Nikons of this world.”

“From the start, we could see an area in the market, where professionals in the social field and high-stepping amateurs meet. We have concentrated our attention on capturing a market segment, which appreciates the impressive resolution provided by our sensational image sensor,” he says, “and are happy with the progress we are making and, by the way, we have further camera developments in the pipeline.”

Sigma also appear not to be phased by talk of especially designed optics for digital applications. The latest additions to the stable will be a 120 – 300 zoom and a 300 – 800 zoom, which, they point out, will provide even more magnification when, used on the SD9.

Minolta: a digital debut
Minolta, a company with a sound and sensible approach to digital imaging, has recently set its sights higher up the resolution scale.

Their recently launched Dimage F300 is said – by Minolta – to be one of the world’s smallest and lightest 5.0 megapixel ‘slip-in-the-pocket’ digital cameras with a built-in eight element, seven group design lens, selling for around £500.

On the market at over twice that price is a Minolta camera of a very different ilk. It’s advanced technology gives the camera a positive air of professional versatility, which should not be ignored.
The Dimage 7Hi takes the best features from Minolta’s top of the range Dimage 7I and adds features to make it a versatile tool, both in the studio and on location.

With shutter speeds topping out at 1/4000s, the new high-speed continuous drive mode can capture images at around three frames per second, even with high quality TIFF and RAW images. Using UHS (Ultra High Speed) continuous advance 7 frames per second can be achieved, which competes with most professional film cameras.

In addition, a 3 point wide AF system, flex focus point for precise control over the focusing area and DMF (Direct Manual Focusing), which make instant adjustments to the auto-focus, the Dimage 7Hi is competitively priced.

Add to this, a cupboard full of well thought out ‘bells and whistles’, this chunky handful of technology is a further example of the way in which individual manufacturers are finding new ways in which to meet the challenges of the digital age.

High-end backs
The freedom of choice afforded professional photographers, when it comes to selecting the right digital back for their individual needs often beggars belief.

Just when you think technology has hit a ceiling it surges ahead again. A prime example is Imacon. The company won three vision awards at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York last year.

One was for their new Ixpress digital camera back, which has a 1,000 image storage bank. It has been designed to enable more functionality and portability than any other back on the market by shooting a full 16 bit colour, 96Mb image straight to disk, including preview every 1.5 seconds.

Thanks for the Memory Cards
Like other distributors, Peak Development Limited offers a wide range of memory cards, including CompactFlash, Sandisk, SmartMedia, IBM Microdrive and Sony’s Memory Stick.

Robert Baseley, Peak’s Sales Director, talking about the evolution of memory cards observes, “Prices have dropped dramatically since the first 4 – 9 megabyte cards were on the market.”

“The norm is now 64 – 128 mg, but one gigabyte cards are already in production and as UK distributors of IBM Microdrive cards, we know that higher capacity cards, as high as 4 and 5 gigabytes are in the pipeline.”

Interestingly, Pretec memory cards, distributed in the UK by Jactron, recently introduced 1.5Gb, 2Gb and 3Gb CompactFlash cards, which are currently the highest capacity of any small form factor flash memory card in the world.

Barbara Briggs, Jactron’s hands-on sales and marketing executive and proud owner of a Fuji Finepix S2 Pro, has personal experience of using a 1Gb Pretec card.

She told us, “I found the performance to be exceptional and, of course, the solid state ‘works’ gives one so much confidence as far as accidental damage is concerned. The save time is slightly slower than the IBM Microdrive, but it is faster than other brands of one Gb CompactFlash on the market.”

The sting in the tail of any major step forward in technology is the initial price. If you are in the market for a higher capacity card, hang onto your shirt! Be prepared to pay VAT inclusive prices of £302 for the 1Gb card, £570 for the 1.5Gb, £1,005 for the 2Gb card and £1,507 for the 3Gb version.

Image recovery software
There have, in the past, been a number of freelance geniuses with the ability to recover text and images from corrupted floppy disks, hard drives and CD-ROM’s. Now, there are neat software packages, which can do the same for digital camera memory cards.

One from Lexar Media called Image Rescue can recovers lost or deleted image files (JPEG, TIFF and RAW), from a CompactFlash card, even if it has become corrupted, giving you added peace of mind knowing that your images are not lost, although image recovery is not 100% guaranteed.

The programme scans every sector on a CompactFlash card and reports any hardware errors found. It can also format and delete all files on the card. If your card is showing an error in your digital device this feature can make the card usable again.

Peak Development Limited is also in the market designed and developed a similar package called Image Recall. Peak were initially so pleased by its performance that the company offered an image recovery service, but now it markets the programme widely at a competitive price, as well.

The ultimate accessory
Professionals with a real handle on the digital revolution will tell you that it is colour management which was, for them, the final piece of the digital jigsaw.

There is evidence that as many as three in four social photographers who had switched to digital capture, have returned to film. “I want my life back” appears to be the cry of disappointed wedding photographers who are peeked because the image files they send to their prolab were returning with vivid green grass, pink faces and lurid coloured lips.

Manufacturers and prolabs, alike, should have made it abundantly clear to them that digital imaging, for all its sophistication, is not designed to reduce photography to an amateur ‘point-and-shoot’ situation; it is a whole new discipline.

Rescue, however, is at hand for those determined to get to grips with the medium. If in the past, the mental shutters clanged shut at the sound of some ‘expert’ enjoying the opportunity to baffle you with pseudo-science, read on.

Back in October 2002, Typemaker Limited, the Birmingham-based software developers and colour management specialists, launched a package just for you!

Colour Confidence Studio is a no-nonsense, follow the instructions, multi-stage approach to managing the translation of colour values from the camera to the monitor and on to the finished print.

Typemaker’s enthusiastic managing director, Geoffrey Clements advises, “Set up correctly and using our easy-to-follow instructions, ‘Studio’ can help you improve colour matching through the digital production process. You can be assured that it demystifies the process and, competitively priced, it opens the market to newcomers, who may not previously have understood or considered professional colour management.”

At £295.00 plus VAT, Colour Confidence Studio has rapidly captured the (cost conscious) imagination of the creative sector. It comes with the Pantone Spyder monitor calibrator, OptiCAL software and a comprehensive PDF guide to the concepts and benefits of colour management, including information on how to set up your operating system and applications for optimal colour reproduction.

There is also an LCD version, for users of flat-screen monitors, for an additional £100.00.

At the opposite end of the colour management spectrum, there is the new Sony Colour Reference System, which combines 21” Sony FD Trinitron CRT display technology with a high performance Sony sensor and software for display calibration and profiling. It is claimed to be the ‘bee’s knees’ in the current race for colour management perfection.

Selling at around £2,000, it is clearly aimed at the leading edge of the photographic market, as well as at major design and publisher’s studios. There is every reason to believe that Sony can do no wrong in this area of digital technology, so close examination of its many advantages must be a priority.

To hell with conformity!
What this all means is that 2003 should see a far greater take-up of digital image-making by professionals who are not prepared to rush into it like headless chickens. The cameras and the technology are are already here to ease them painlessly into a whole new way of working.

Digitally driven, the photo industry will keep right on improving the technology, which drives cameras, lenses and peripherals to new levels of quality and speed.

It result remains debatable for the industry, if it were it to accede to the suggestion of creating common standards and demands for conformity, because they might place a dead hand on future digital developments.

Whatever happens, manufacturers would do well to remember that for their professional customers, conformity is seldom an attribute to which they personally aspire.

© Copyright John Chillingworth