PMA is not a typical photography trade show. Because it’s geared for photo dealers and studio photographers, there are lots of vendors hawking goods that the typical photographer doesn’t need. Laser etching machines, photo printing kiosks, industrial-grade large format printers, and other exotica, abound at PMA. However, many of the usual suspects attend PMA—Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Fuji and all the other major camera vendors—as well as many accessory and software vendors. This year’s PMA included a couple of important announcements, and a stroll through the maze of camera booths revealed some great new technologies.
The state of things
Having all of the major camera vendors in one place provides a great opportunity to get a look at the camera market as a whole, as well as a chance to focus on specific models.
Canon showed off their new Rebel XSI, the latest update to their smaller, consumer-oriented SLR line. Sporting a more comfortable body and some cool interface changes, such as an external ISO button and in-viewfinder ISO display, this update looks to be a great performer. I’ve never been a fan of Canon’s small bodies, because they always felt cramped in my hand, and easy to drop. Not so with the XSI.
Unlike all of Canon’s previous SLRs, the new Rebel XSI uses Secure Digital cards instead of Compact Flash. A Canon rep told me that this is the course they would be taking with all future SLRs.
SD cards have a few advantages over Compact Flash media. First of all, it’s much speedier, which allows for faster burst rates, and helps to ensure that your camera will always be ready to shoot.
It’s also smaller than CF, which allows for smaller camera designs, larger screens, and other physical improvements to the camera’s body. Finally, with the new SDHC format, SD cards are already up to 32GB capacities.
So, if you’re hoping to update to a forthcoming model—such as the highly anticipated successor to the EOS 5D, which will hopefully appear this fall at Photokina in Germany—you might want to hold off on investing more money in CompactFlash cards.
While Olympus announced their new E-3 D-SLR last October, this was my first chance to see it. Exhibiting Olympus’ usual excellent build quality, the E3 is feature-packed and includes a new image processing engine, sensor-based stabilization and a new 10.1 megapixel sensor. If you’ve never shot with an Olympus SLR before, you’ll probably first be struck by the insanely fast auto-focus speed. Olympus touts it as the fastest in the world, and when you try it for yourself, it’s easy to believe this claim.
Many vendors, from Panasonic to Olympus were showing new point-and-shoot cameras with a range of features. Some of Panasonic’s latest models have a 25mm equivalent wide-angle lens, while Olympus continues to produce a few “ruggedized” point-and-shoots that can go underwater without a case, be dropped from great heights, and even be sent through the U.S. mail without fear of being damaged.
Whether you’re interested in point-and-shoots or SLRs, taking a view of the entire industry is a great way to get an idea of what features might become more common on all cameras in the future. SLRs and point-and-shoots regularly swipe technology from each other, so a stroll through the camera booths at PMA can give you an idea of what you might one day find on your camera, whether you use a point-and-shoot, SLR, or something in-between.
Of course, pixel count is the feature that most vendors upgrade, whether the market demands it or not. In point-and-shoots, 8 megapixels is the new 5 megapixels, while 10 and 12 are the new 8. In other words, most entry-level point-and-shoots are now packing 8 megapixels, while most higher-end models now carry 10 to 12 megapixel sensors.
While your gut reaction may be, “Great!”, there’s a price to pay for all these extra pixels. As pixel count goes higher, pixel size goes smaller, and smaller pixels are more prone to noise. In many cases, vendors are able to compensate for the noise with improved image processing, but in many other cases, these upgrades actually end up reducing quality. So, with these newer models, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be getting an improvement in image quality.
Improved high ISO performance is also the dream at the higher end of the spectrum, and Nikon has taken a great leap forward with their D3. Though these cameras were released a while ago, watching Nikon’s demos of this camera, and seeing noise-free images shot at ISO 6800 or 12000 is still astonishing. Hopefully, this technology will trickle down into their less expensive models. And it’s certainly an alarm call for the competition, which will need to match or best Nikon’s noise performance. So, even if you’re not a Nikon shooter, or can’t afford a D3, your future looks less noisy, as other vendors catch up.
Casio was demoing a fascinating new camera, the EXILIM Pro EX-F1, a “prosumer” type body with the amazing ability to shoot full-res images at 60 frames per second. A super-fast burst speed may sound kind of gimmicky, but Casio has implemented some amazing features around this capability.
For example, you can quickly rattle off a second’s worth of images (60 of them) and then use a simple interface to scroll through the images you shot, to pick only the ones you want to record. Thanks to the camera’s ability to shoot and buffer a second’s worth of data, the camera’s LCD can be used as a slow-motion display to help you nail exactly the moment you want. For example, if you’re at a baseball game and you see a runner trying to steal second, you can throw the camera into slow-mo mode. It will display the action in front of you in slow motion, enabling you to more easily see the moment when the runner touches the bag, making it simple to snap a precise shot.
Other cool features include the ability to tell the camera to automatically take a picture when something moves into a particular focus zone, which is ideal for capturing finish lines, or to shoot when something leaves a focus zone, such as a bird taking off.
In-camera image processing is also showing innovation. While it’s easy to get hung up on the idea that more pixels means more noise, it’s also important to remember that noise is also a function of image processing. So, while pixel counts may increase, image-processing capability is also improving, which means images you might see images with less noise, better color, and overall improved quality.
Panasonic’s new point-and-shoot line boasts a fascinating new technology that allows you to capture a wider dynamic range. As digital shooters, we’re already used to changing ISO on a shot-by-shot basis, but Panasonic’s cameras can adjust ISO on a pixel-by-pixel basis within an individual frame. So, if you’re shooting a scene that has bright highlights and dark shadows, the camera can automatically boost the ISO of the pixels in the shadowy areas, to expose them with more detail. Understanding that some people are leery of a camera that automatically starts jacking up ISO, Panasonic has wisely included controls that let you specify a cap for these auto-ISO adjustments.
Point-and-shoot zooms are also improving, with many vendors making very small cameras that boast 8X and longer lenses. Because camera size is being kept down, you don’t have to give up pocketability to get more reach.
While Adobe and Apple were both absent from the show, there were still a couple of great software announcements to be had.
Nik Software announced Viveza, a Photoshop plug-in that adds their U-Point technology to Photoshop. If you’re a user of Nikon’s excellent Capture NX software, then you’re already familiar with these tools. If you’ve never used Capture NX, just trust me that you’ve never used an image adjustment tool as easy or as powerful as U-point. With these tools you can create complex localized tone and color corrections without ever creating a selection or mask – the U-point tool does that for you. While the plug-in is not yet shipping, this promises to be one of the most important software announcements of the year.
For photographers who’ve always been interested in selling their images, but have never known how to price them, or how to arrange a license, a new web-based technology from ImageSpan called LicenseStream will be a service you’ll want to take a close look at. Automating the process of licensing and selling your images, LicenseStream should be a boon to photographers at all levels, when it ships later in the month.
We’ll have full reviews of many of these hardware and software products as they ship, as well as a round-up of some very cool accessories and gizmos.