Photo

How big can a panorama get?

I use the Kolor AutoPano Giga panorama-stitching software, recently acquired by GoPro, but I have yet to produce a gigapixel panorama like those they pioneered. This brings up an interesting question: given a camera and lens, what would the pixel size of the largest 360° stitched panorama be?

Wikipedia to the rescue: using the formula for the solid angle of a pyramid, the full panorama size of a camera with m megapixels on a sensor of a x b using a focal length of f would be:

m * π / arctan(ab / 2f / sqrt(4f2 + a2 + b2))

(this applies only to rectilinear lenses, not fisheyes or other exotics).

Here is a little JavaScript calculator to apply the formula (defaults are for the Sony RX1RII, the highest resolution camera I own):

MP
mm actual 35mm equivalent

MP

The only way I can break through the gigapixel barrier with a prime lens is using my 24MP APS-C Fuji X-T2 with a 90mm lens.

Scanner group test

TL:DR—avoid scanners with Contact Image Sensors if you care at all about color fidelity.

Vermeer it is not

After my abortive trial of the Colortrac SmartLF Scan, I did a comparative test of scanning one of my daughter’s A3-sized drawings on a number of scanners I had handy.

Scanner Sensor Scan
Colortrac SmartLF Scan CIS ScanLF.jpg
Epson Perfection Photo V500 Photo (manually stitched) CCD Epson_V500.jpeg
Epson Perfection V19 (manually stitched) CIS Epson_V19.jpg
Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (using a carrier sheet and the built-in stitching) CCD S1500M_carriersheet.jpg
Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 CCD SV600.jpg
Fuji X-Pro2 with XF 35mm f/1.4 lens, mounted on a Kaiser RS2 XA copy stand with IKEA KVART 3-spot floor lamp (CCT 2800K, a mediocre 82 CRI as measured with my UPRtek CV600) CMOS X-Pro2.jpg

I was shocked by the wide variance in the results, as was my wife. This is most obvious in the orange flower on the right.

Comparison

I scanned a swatch of the orange using a Nix Pro Color Sensor (it’s the orange square in the upper right corner of each scan in the comparison above). When viewed on my freshly calibrated NEC PA302W SpectraView II monitor, the Epson V500 scan is closest, followed by the ScanSnap SV600.

The two scanners using Contact Image Sensor (CIS) technology yielded dismal results. CIS are used in low-end scanners, and they have the benefit of low power usage, which is why the only USB bus-powered scanners available are all CIS models. CIS sensors begat the CMOS sensors used by the vast majority of digital cameras today, superseding CCDs in that application, I would not have expected such a gap in quality.

The digital camera scan was also quite disappointing. I blame the poor quality of the LEDs in the IKEA KVART three-headed lamp I used (pro tip: avoid IKEA LEDs like the plague, they are uniformly horrendous).

I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent performance of the S1500M document scanner. It is meant to be used for scanning sheaves of documents, not artwork, but Fujitsu did not skimp and used a CCD sensor element, and it shows.

Pro tip: a piece of anti-reflective Museum Glass or equivalent can help with curled originals on the ScanSnap SV600. I got mine from scraps at a framing shop. I can’t see a trace of reflections on the scan, unlike on the copy stand.

Colortrac SmartLF Scan review

TL:DR summary

Pros:

  • Scans very large documents
  • Easy to use
  • Packs away in a convenient carrying case

Cons:

  • So-so color fidelity
  • Hard to feed artwork straight
  • Dust and debris can easily get on the platen, ruining scans
  • Relatively expensive for home use

Review

One thing you do not lack for when your child enters preschool is artwork. They generate prodigious amounts of it, with gusto, and they are often large format pieces on 16×24″ paper (roughly ISO A2). The question is, what do you do with the torrent?

I decided I would scan them, then file them in Ito-Ya Art Profolios, and possibly make annual photobooks for the grandparents. This brings up the logistical challenge of digitizing such large pieces. Most flatbed scanners are limited to 8.5×14″ (US Legal) format. Some like the Epson Expression 11000XL and 12000XL can scan 11×17″ (A3), as can the Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 book scanner, but that is not fully adequate either. One option would be to fold the artwork up, scan portions then stitch them together in AutoPanoGiga or Photoshop, but that would be extremely cumbersome, specially when you have to do a couple per day. I do not have access to a color copier at my office, and most of these are only A3 anyway.

I purchased a Kaiser RS2 XA copy stand (cheaper to get it direct from Europe on eBay than from the usual suspects like B&H) and got a local framing shop to cut me a scrap of anti-reflective Museum Glass. This goes up to 16×20″ for the price of a midrange flatbed scanner, but it is tricky to set up lights so they don’t induce reflections (no AR coating is perfect), perfectly aligning the camera with the baseboard plane is difficult (I had to shim it using a cut-up credit card), and this still doesn’t solve the problem of the truly large 16×24″ artwork (stands able to handle larger formats are extremely expensive and very bulky).

I then started looking at large-format scanners like those made by Contex or Océ. They are used by architecture firms to scan blueprints and the like, but they are also extremely large, and cost $3000-5000 for entry-level models, along with onerous DRM-encumbered software that requires license dongles and more often than not will not run on a Mac. They are also quite bulky, specially if you get the optional stands.

That is why I was pleasantly surprised to learn British company Colortrac makes a model called the SmartLF Scan! (I will henceforth omit the over-the-top exclamation mark). It is self-contained (can scan to internal memory or a USB stick, although it will also work with a computer over USB or Ethernet, Windows-only, unfortunately), available in 24″ or 36″ wide versions, is very compact compared to its peers, and is even supplied with a nifty custom-fitted wheeled hard case. The price of $2,000 ($2,500 for the 36″ version), while steep for home use, is well within the range of enthusiast photo equipment. I sold a few unused cameras to release funds for one.

Once unpacked, the scanner is surprisingly light. It is quite wide, obviously, to be able to ingest a 24″ wide document (see the CD jewel case in the photo above for scale). There is a LCD control panel and a serviceable keypad-based (not touch) UI. The power supply is of the obnoxious wall-wart type. I wish they used text rather than inscrutable icons in the UI—it is much more informative and usable to see a menu entry for 400dpi resolution rather than checkerboard icons with various pitches.

After selecting your settings (or saving them as defaults), you load paper by feeding it from the front, face up. It is quite hard to feed large-format paper straight, and this is compounded by the lack of guides. On the other hand it is hard to see how Colortrac could have fitted photocopier-style guide rails in such a compact design, and they would be likely to break.

The scanner is simplex, not duplex, unsurprisingly at that price point. The sensor is on top of the feed, which helps control dust and debris sticking to it, but when scanning painted artwork, there will inevitably be crumbs of paint that will detach and stick to the sensor platen. This manifests itself as long dark vertical lines spoiling subsequent scans, something I occasionally also see on my Fujitsu ScanSnap document scanner. Cleaning the Colortrac is way easier than on the ScanSnap, as unfolding rear legs and releasing front catches opens it wide, and a few passes with optical cleaning wipes (I use Zeiss’ single-use ones) will do the trick.

By the manufacturer’s own admission, the scanner is designed to scan technical drawings, not art. It uses a linear contact image sensor (CIS) like lower-end flatbed scanners and document scanners, unlike the higher-fidelity charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors used in higher-end graphics arts and photo scanners. The light source is a row of point light LEDs that casts relatively harsh shadows on the paper. They do make CCD scanners for graphics arts, but they start at $10,000… Contex makes an A2 flatbed CCD scanner, the HD iFlex, but it costs $6,700 (at Jet.com of all places), their iQ Quattro 2490 at $4,500 is the most viable step-up (it uses a CIS, but offers 16-bit color, AdobeRGB and beyond gamut, calibration and magnetic paper guides).

The scanner’s resolution is 600dpi. Scanning 16×24″ originals at that resolution yields a 138MP file that is nearly a gigabyte in size. The 400dpi setting yields a much more reasonable 200MB or so, and compressing them further using tiffcp with zip compression (not an option on the scanner) yields 130-140MB files.

Unfortunately, I ended up returning it. There was a 1cm scratch in the glass platen, which manifested itself as streaks. It takes quite a bit to scratch glass (I don’t think it was Lexan or similar), and I wasn’t scanning sandpaper, so it must have been a factory defect or a customer return. When I looked at the color fidelity of the scans, I was not inclined to order a replacement, and got a Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 from Japan instead from an Amazon third-party reseller (25% savings over the US price, even if you usually forgo a US warranty on grey-market imports).

ArtisanState review

TL:DR—avoid them.

I seldom print photos any more. When I do, I prefer to make photobooks, as the format is way more convenient than loose prints, takes little space, and looks more polished than a traditional photo album.

Unfortunately, most photobooks are printed on HP Indigo digital presses, which use a technology somewhat similar to a laser printer, but capable of better quality photo reproduction. Indigo presses were originally designed to produce personalized junk-mail, not high-quality photo reproduction, and the quality, while decent, is not at the same level as that of true RA-4 photo paper exposed with a laser or LED light source as done by most digital minilabs (e.g. Fuji Frontier or Noritsu QSS) or higher-end imaging systems like the Océ/Cymbolic Lightjet or Durst Lambda.

There are higher-quality options. AdoramaPix has a good reputation for its albums, which are printed on RA-4 paper and bound in a lay-flat binding without a gutter, a technique that lends itself specially well to panoramic prints. They also have a “Hudson” line of premium albums where the photos are laminated on thick cardstock for a more luxurious feel. In researching this flush-mount process, I discovered a company called ArtisanState. It is based here in San Francisco (manufacturing is in China), their pricing seemed attractive, so I decided to give them a try.

I used a selection of my panoramic prints and ordered a 6×8 album bound in genuine leather. They offer two grades of paper, Fuji Crystal Archive Lustre and Fuji Crystal Archive Pearl Metallic, and I opted for the latter. Metallic paper, first introduced by Kodak under the Endura brand, has mica particles embedded in the RC paper base under the photographic emulsion. The photo looks as if it is painted on metal, which can be spectacular, specially with specular highlights (although I would not recommend it for portraiture such as a wedding album, the fashion industry seems to be quite fond of it). The Fuji lustre has a grainy finish that resists fingerprints, but I don’t find it attractive, and would much prefer a satin finish without an obvious texture like the one Moo uses in its business cards.

When I received my album after 2 weeks, I was impressed by the reproduction quality and the metallic effect, but there was also a very visible texture on the pages, similar to an orange peel. After some research, I found that mounting metallic papers seems to cause orange peel unless done very carefully using a low temperature on the mounting press, and they are the exception to the general rule of thumb that Fuji products are superior to Kodak’s (although true to form, Kodak’s bean counters degraded the quality of the product by cutting corners to shave costs).

At the price they charge ($104 list, but I got it at 40% promotional discount), you can rightfully expect perfection. I wrote to ArtisanState to complain, got the run-around, and reviews online suggest my experience with unresponsive support is far from unusual. I am going to try again with AdoramaPix: they may be more expensive, but the product won’t be made in China and in the end you get what you pay for.

A Passel of Miniature Tripods

Miniature tripods are a handy thing to carry in a camera bag. While they cannot replace a full-size tripod, they can allow you to take a shot where otherwise impossible. Here are a few worth your consideration.

Tested but not shown:

  • Joby Gorillapod: total garbage, unfit for purpose.
  • Pedco Ultrapod: the tripod itself is reasonably decent, but its ballhead is poor

The ultimate irrelevance of image quality

Months ago I showed my father how to take screen shots on his iPad and iMac, and he routinely takes them while using FaceTime video conferencing with my 1 year-old daughter. Due to poor bandwidth at home (we live in San Francisco and are subject to the tender mercies of AT&T’s not-even-third-world-grade DSL), the image quality can be described as blurry VGA at best. Yet he is happy with the results, and even made a photo book featuring many of these screenshots, showing the wide range of fleeting expressions she displays. When printed at passport photo size, the fuzziness is surprisingly passable. He has also gotten my technophobe mother in the game.

I spend a lot of time obsessing over the finer points of camera and lens technology, and how to wring the best technical quality out of my photos, but my parents show how content trumps presentation.

Sony RX1 first impressions

Despite my hatred of all things Sony, I purchased two of their cameras in the last few months: a RX100 for my wife, and a RX1 for myself. the bragging rights of a full-frame sensor with a Zeiss 35mm f/2 prime were too much to resist.

  • This thing is built like a tank. It feels very dense.
  • The mode, AF and exposure compensation knobs, while not locking, have tight detents and are impossible to knock off their settings by accident.
  • The big lens means limited handholds, and the lack of a textured grip means it is quite slippery. I dropped mine on a concrete floor, entailing expensive repairs (it was still functional, but the focus ring was no longer spinning smoothly). A wrist or neck strap is a must-have with the RX1.
  • It is not compact by any means, comparable to the Sigma DP2 Merrill in bulk. Due to the lens protrusion, it is less pocketable than my Fuji X100.
  • The lens, while excellent in terms of sharpness and vignetting, has very severe barrel distortion. Lightroom can correct for that, but you lose resolution in the process.
  • Unfortunately it is merely a Sonnar, not a Planar or better yet a Biogon. I don’t remember the 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar in the Contax T3 having this much distortion, though.
  • Autofocus is only so-so.
  • Image quality at high ISO values is outstanding, as you would expect from a full-frame sensor from the leading manufacturer today.

Prints not-so charming

Ansel Adams wrote a celebrated series of photo instructional books. It is organized as a trilogy: The Camera, The Negative and The Print.

Of these, the camera business is still going strong, buoyed by sales of digital cameras and upgraders to DSLRs (although market saturation looms). Negatives are an endangered species as digital photography largely supplanted film. Prints are still going strong, whether using traditional silver halide, inkjet or offset printing, but that probably won’t stave off Kodak’s impending demise.

Last year, I wrote to X-Rite to complain that their software for the Colormunki color calibrator wouldn’t let me profile the full brightness range of my monitor, and limited it to an artificial ceiling designed around the limitations of print. Their response:

The ColorMunki software will not allow a range over 140cd/m luminance value.  This would basically defeat the purpose of using a device to measure luminance when you set the values this high.  While your monitor can be extremely bright however using a value of 300+ would allow your monitor to show you a brightness value that would negatively affect your prints and they would end up coming out so dark that you would be unable to see them.  The industry standard for photographic works is to use the luminance values setup at anywhere from 80 – 120cd/m.  That said, if your ambient light conditions are ranging very high then you should probably be using a value of 120cd/m which is the industry standard and what we recommend.

In the ColorMunki software there is an option to set the luminance according to your ambient light conditions.  This is a pretty high threshold in the software where as you have to read somewhere around 350-400 lux to get a target luminance above the 80 threshold.  If it does go above this value then you certainly will want to stay within the 120 range.  Anything below that will give you a target value of 80.

Implicit in this response is the assumption the only reason why you would want to calibrate your monitor is so you can make more accurate prints. Prints only have a 100:1 or so contrast ratio, compared to LCD monitors for which the static contrast ratio is closer to 1000:1, and plasma TVs go higher yet. This is why images on screen look more vibrant and punchy than prints, as did slides back in the day.

If Apple does indeed come up with the oft-rumored iPad 3 with double the resolution of current models, or 2048×1536 at 260ppi, you would have an easily portable display device with near gallery-grade resolution and massive storage capacity. At that point, prints would lose the last advantage they still hold over digital display technologies.

Image display on screen is the new normal, and X-Rite needs to get with the program. I want to see the full dynamic range and contrast of my images on my screen, not a Hobson’s choice between inaccurate color and crippling them with limitations from legacy print technology.

 

How prevalent is high-ISO photography?

Low light performance is one of the most important factors I consider when buying a camera. At one point I did an expensive switch from the Canon system to Nikon, when the D3 came out, for its amazing high-ISO performance (I returned to Canon when the 5DmkII came out).

On a popular forum for users of Micro Four Thirds cameras (which struggle beyond ISO 800), a poster recently questioned the rationale for high ISO performance, stating 99% of users will never shoot beyond ISO 800. I quickly looked at my statistics in Lightroom, and found over 54% of the photos I took in 2011 (to date) are at higher than ISO 800.

That begs the question: who is more representative, him or me? Flickr.com publishes statistics on popular camera models, but apparently not on other interesting EXIF metadata. I whipped up a quick and dirty Python script to sample recently uploaded photos from Flickr and collect the ISO speed from their EXIF tags, when available.

Of 3020 photos I sampled, fully 399 were shot at ISO higher than 800, or 13% (the 95% confidence interval is 12% to 14.4%). Thus significantly less than my proportion, but far higher than 1%.

Clearing custom crop aspect ratios in Lightroom

Lightroom’s crop tool allows you to constrain the aspect ratio to a proportion of your choice, e.g. to 4:3, defaulting to the same aspect ratio as the original. The last 5 or so custom crop aspect ratios are saved, but a minor annoyance is you are unable to clear the list.

Python on the Mac and SQLite to the rescue: this simple script  lraspect.zip will reset them. If you use a non-default name for your Lightroom catalog, you will need to edit it. To run it, quit Lightroom and run the script. It will back up your catalog for you just in case.

Needless to say, I cannot be held liable if this script corrupts your catalog or eats your dog (who ate your homework), use at your own risk.

#!/usr/bin/python
import sys, os, sqlite3

# edit this to point to your LR3 catalog if you do not use the default location
lrcat = os.path.expanduser('~/Pictures/Lightroom/Lightroom 3 Catalog.lrcat')

os.system('cp -i "%s" "%s.bak"' % (lrcat, lrcat))
db = sqlite3.connect(lrcat)
c = db.cursor()
c.execute("""select value from Adobe_variablesTable
where name='Adobe_customCropAspects'""")
crops = c.fetchone()[0]
print 'aspect ratios:', crops
c.execute("""update Adobe_variablesTable
set value='{}'
where name='Adobe_customCropAspects'""")
db.commit()
print 'Custom crop aspect ratios reset successfully'

Is this a Google Street View car?

Update (2011-05-12): the answer is no, it’s a Navteq 3D mapping car with a LIDAR array. Thanks to Darrell Kresge for the clarification.

As I was walking to lunch today, I caught sight of this weird contraption, and had just enough presence of mind to grab a few snaps of it.

One strange feature is a spinning white cylinder inside the arm canted at a 45 degree angle.

It doesn’t look like any of the Google Street View vehicles captured before, nor does it have the Google markings. The Michigan license plate is a bit odd as well. A prototype, perhaps? Or is some other company is getting into this racket, perhaps Microsoft?

First test roll from the Fuji GF670

Panasonic GF1 first impressions

I bought a Panasonic DMC-GF1 compact large-sensor camera in a kit with a small 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens on Monday to replace my Sigma DP2 as my everyday pocket (well, jacket pocket) camera. While the 17.3x10mm micro four thirds sensor is nowhere near as large as the full-frame 36x24mm sensors on my Canon 5DmkII or Leica M9, an APS-C sensor like the one on the upcoming Leica X1, or even the 20.7×13.8mm Foveon X3 sensor in the DP2, the big draw in the GF1 is its excellent responsiveness, as the autofocus and autoexposure lag in the DP2 is that otherwise excellent camera’s Achille’s heel.

The GF1 has been extensively reviewed elsewhere, technically by DPReview and hands-on by Craig Mod, and if you are interested in this camera I encourage you to read those very thorough reviews. I will not attempt to duplicate them here. Here are just salient observations from using this camera that I have not seen elsewhere:

  • The image preview mode is deceptive. At the maximum 16x magnification, pictures appear far worse on screen than they really are. I can only assume the interpolation algorithms used are terrible. The camera’s review mode is useless for editing images or rejecting poor ones in the field, you have to return to your computer to get an assessment on critical focus.
  • The orientation sensor is inexplicably part of the lens, not the body. The 20mm pancake does not include one. Even Canon’s cheapest digital Elphs or Rebels include an orientation sensor, its absence in a $900 camera kit is inexcusable.
  • In program mode, the camera seems to always select f/1.7, even when lower apertures with more reasonable depth of field are available.

Leica Monovid review

Leica recently introduced the Monovid monocular. Monoculars are more compact than binoculars, but you lose stereo vision, which is why birdwatchers tend to shun them. I myself have a very strong director eye and correspondingly poor binocular vision, so this is not such a big deal for me.

Monovid
The Monovid is supplied with an accessory screw-on close-up lens that reduces the minimum focus distance. This is useful for butterfly or hummingbird watchers, but the arrangement is clumsier than the

Minox Makroskop.

Monovid
The Monovid is essentially half of a pair of

Ultravid 8×20 BL binoculars. The barrel is 3-4mm longer to accommodate the threads for the close-up lens, and it has a goiter-like knurled protrusion towards the end for focusing. The eyecup is the same, and can be either pulled out for normal viewing, or left in for eyeglass wearers. This is a far better arrangement than fold-up rubber eyecups. The leather case for the Monovid is quite bulky, and features a screw thread to hold the close-up lens as well as an ingenious ribbon that pulls the monocular out of the case when you flip the lid open. It also has a magnetic catch unlike the Ultravids’ snap button.

Monovid and Ultravid
Unsurprisingly, the performance is nearly identical, that is to say, stellar. The image is bright (most monoculars are in the 12-15mm aperture range). There is no hint of distortion or chromatic aberration across the field. It is quite sensitive to perfectly centered eye placement, specially when you are wearing eyeglasses, otherwise you will black out.

Sadly, the price is not half that of the binoculars, closer to two thirds. Considering that it is not all that much more compact and you lose stereo vision, if you are considering one, I would recommend the more versatile Ultravid 8×20 BL (or the cheaper BR) instead. Another option to consider is the respected line of Zeiss monoculars (most are more compact than the Monovid, but the 8×20 is nearly the same size and not as well built) or the slower but smaller Nikon “high grade” monocular series (unfortunately the 7×15 has been discontinued, but old new stock is still readily available).

Update (2012-11-26):

I purchased a new-old-stock Nikon High Grade 5×15 monocular. It is much lighter than the Monovid, has much closer focusing at 60cm vs 1.80m, no futzing with accessory lenses required (although to be fair the Leica focuses to 25-30cm with the close-up lens).

The fit and finish on the Japanese-made monoculars (vs. Portugal, not Germany, for the Monovid) is superb, with deeply engraved and paint-filled markings (even superior in execution to AI-s Nikkors). The supplied case is made of genuine leather, unfortunately it does not include a belt clip. The aluminium shell is not monocoque like the Monovid, and seems less robust. There is also no mention of the Nikon being nitrogen-purged and waterproof. The finger indents make it quite comfortable to hold and the hexagonal cross-section means it is unlikely to roll off a table. The neck strap on the Nikon is also lighter and far more practical than the bulky hand strap on the Leica. Surprisingly, it is not easier to hand-hold despite the lower magnification – the heft of the Monovid stabilizes it somewhat against shake.

The optics are excellent. It’s hard to compare to the Leica, due to the lower magnification and aperture, but like the Leica, the image is clear across the frame with no color aberrations across the frame. There seems to be some slight chromatic aberration at the very edges that you don’t get with the Leica.

The Nikon 5×15 HG is discontinued, but it appears in their 2012-2013 sports optics catalog, along with the 7×15 HG, so there is a possibility it will be resurrected. It is readily available from Japan on eBay and occasionally Amazon as well.

Update (2017-02-21):

I seem to be collecting monoculars. Some other models:

  • Steiner 8×22 Miniscope: plastic piece of junk, avoid it.
  • Minox 8×25 Macroscope: very bulky, decent but not astounding optics, the focusing knob is not very ergonomic. It’s sole saving grace is its very close focusing distance. It’s best to think of it as a loupe with very long clearance, and as such I would expect it to be ideal for naturalists, entomologists, field geologists and the like.
  • Nikon HG 7×15: much the same as the 5×15, with narrower field of view, smaller sweet spot for eye placement and shorter eye relief. The 5x is a better monocular in most circumstances, if you really need the higher magnification you are better off getting the Monovid or proper binoculars.

Olympus E-P1 hands-on impressions

I had the opportunity to handle an Olympus E-P1 camera at Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto. There has been quite a bit of excitement on sites like Rangefinder Forum and many were expecting this to be the first pocketable camera that could compete with SLRs in image quality.

The Sigma DP1 and DP2 were actually the first cameras with large sensors and reasonable pixel counts, bucking the marketing-driven trend towards too many pixels squeezed onto too small a sensor chip, with horrible noise as the result. I own both, and their image quality is indeed stunning, but they have one Achilles’ heel — speed, or the lack thereof.

The E-P1 is very compact, almost the same size with the 17mm as the Sigma DP2 (some photos released suggested it was closer to the Leica M8). The build quality is fine, and it is nowhere near as heavy as some early users suggested it was. They probably compared it to a plastic fantastic compact rather than a more substantial camera like a Leica or a DSLR.

I was surprised to find the 17mm AF hunted quite a bit, overshooting and then backtracking. Oddly, it did this even on the next shot when the lens was already in focus. I don’t know if this is specific to the 17mm lens, but it is certainly not encouraging.

From my test shots, I was also distinctly unimpressed by the optical quality of the lens, or the noise performance at ISO 1600. The Four-Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats are hobbled by sensors one half the size of the APS-C used in most entry-level DSLRs, with predictably higher levels of noise and limited dynamic range. I had to go back to 2003 and my then Canon EOS 10D to find similar levels of noise. The Canon Rebel XT was definitely superior in high-ISO performance, let alone current SLRs. Olympus fanboys seem to be in denial about the limitations of Four-Thirds sensors, but you cannot fight against physics and expect to win.

The other disappointing thing about the 17mm lens is that it is not particularly sharp, specially for a prime lens of relatively modest maximum aperture. The pictures were nowhere near as crisp as the lovely Sigma lenses on the DP1 and DP2. This is all the more a let-down as Olympus was renowned for the quality of its miniaturized prime lenses in the days of the ground-breaking OM system. I wasn’t expecting Pentax SMC Limited pancake lens levels of performance (we are talking of a lens one third the price, after all), but there is no point in having 12 megapixels (at least 6 too far in my book) if the lens can’t actually exploit them.

I had preordered an E-P1 with the 17mm kit lens and viewfinder from Amazon. After handling the E-P1 and taking a few test shots, I canceled my order.

Fuji GF670 first impressions

Fuji GF670I just received my Fuji GF670 from Dirk Rösler at Japan Exposures. This is a folding medium-format rangefinder camera, an anachronism in many respects, but I regret not getting a G690 when they were still made and since this is a limited edition (apparently quite a popular one at that), I went ahead. I have not yet shot a roll, but here are my first impressions:

  • The unfolding mechanism is a bit finnicky. You have to be careful to get the front standard aligned with the film plane. Once deployed it seems fairly stable. Folding it back is also quite tricky.
  • The meter indicator LEDs and controls are very reminiscent of the Epson R-D1, not surprising since both are actually made by Cosina.
  • The leaf shutter is amazingly quiet. It makes a Leica sound like a clunker in comparison.
  • The camera is quite light for MF, it feels lighter than a R-D1 (even though it weighs nearly twice as much) and is not that much larger.
  • It does not exude quality like the Fuji-manufactured TX-2 (Hasselblad XPan II).
  • The rangefinder patch is bright and clear. The RF base length is very short as in a VC Bessa, and will probably not be as precise as a Leica, XPan or Zeiss Ikon.
  • The film loading mechanism is very easy to use, and built as well as other Fuji MF cameras such as the G617.
  • You have to remember to reset the lens to infinity focus in order to fold it.
  • You get a choice of 6×6 and 6×7, 120 and 220.
  • The optional case is a snug fit. I wish it included a belt loop.

In grand old techno-fetishistic tradition, I put up an unboxing gallery.

Update (2009-08-27):

I have finally uploaded a gallery of my first test roll from the camera. The lens’ optical quality is outstanding, unlike most older folders (well, apart from the Plaubel Makina, of course).

Fuji GF670

Large sensor compact cameras finally on the horizon

I have stated on the record that my dream camera is a digital Contax T3 with an APS-C size sensor (or larger). Sigma launched the DP1, the first large-sensor compact this year, but it is a flawed camera, very sluggish, with a slow f/4 lens, and its Foveon sensor tops out at ISO 800, making it in practice a less capable low-light camera than my Fuji F31fd.

A few weeks ago, Olympus and Panasonic announced the Micro Four Thirds specification, which would allow for interchangeable-lens compact cameras with a larger sensor than the nasty tiny and noisy ones used on most compacts. Unfortunately it seems the whole misguided Four Thirds effort is destined to flounder, just as APS did compared to 35mm, despite the undeniable convenience. The 18×13.5mm sensor size has almost half the area of an APS-C sensor and all Four Thirds camera made so far have predictably poor low-light performance.

In a much more promising development, Samsung announced today that since it is finding it very hard to dislodge Canon and Nikon from their top position in DSLRs or even make a dent, they are going to create an entire new segment of professional quality compact cameras using the same APS-C sensors as their DSLRs, and due for 2010. Samsung uses the Pentax lens mount for its DSLRs, and has a long established relationship with Schneider Kreuznach. Pentax makes some very nice pancake lenses that combine high optical quality with small size. The only other company is Olympus, but the 25mm f/2 is saddled with the aforementioned Four Thirds sensor with all the limitations that entails.

At the same time, Thom Hogan has echoed rumors of an APS-C size Coolpix compact from Nikon. It looks like the big camera manufacturers can no longer afford to ignore the pent-up demand for this category, as demonstrated by the brisk sales of the DP1 (No. 49 on Amazon’s Digital SLR chart).

Update (2010-10-06):

There is now a wide variety of large-sensor compacts, including models with interchangeable lenses:

  • Sigma DP1, DP1s, DP2, DP2s and DP2x: wonderful optics, compact, great image quality, mediocre high-ISO performance, very slow AF and user interface
  • Olympus EP-1, EP-2 and E-PL: cute design, sensor stabilization, poor ISO performance, slow AF, so-so optics unworthy of the Zuiko legacy, but you can use Panasonic’s lenses on them)
  • Panasonic GF1: great design, solid but heavy, mediocre ISO performance, very fast AF, great optics
  • Leica X1: great optics, best high-ISO performance, excellent user interface, very compact and light, slow AF, no video, very expensive). The camera I carry with me every day in my jacket pocket.
  • Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5: great high-ISO performance, poor user interface, very compact, awkward 24mm-e focal length if you want a compact lens. Made by an evil company that should be boycotted.
  • Samsung NX100: disappointing high-ISO performance for an APS-C sensor, optical quality a question mark.
  • Fuji X100: bulky, innovative viewfinder design, questionable user interface in the prototype, potential for greatness, but we will have to wait for the final production models.

Canon and Nikon are late to the party, and risk being marginalized if they continue to ignore market demand.

Update (2013-01-28):

The range of worthwhile options has expanded even further:

  • Fuji X100s: builds on the X100 with fast AF and an even better sensor. I have been using the X100 as my “every day carry” camera for two years now and have the X100s on preorder.
  • Leica X2: mostly fixes the AF sloth of the X1 and adds an EVF option. If it weren’t for the X100s, it would be a very compelling camera.
  • Sigma DP1 and DP2 Merrill: still slow, much higher resolution sensor, at the cost of greater bulk. Outstanding image quality at low to moderate ISO that dwarfs all but the highest end DSLRs and medium format digital. Very poor battery life. Poor software workflow options (not supported by Lightroom).
  • Sony RX1: extremely expensive, but great sensor and build quality. So-so AF. Sharp lens but has very high distortion, can be corrected in software but then you lose resolution.
  • Sony RX1: very compact, fast AF, versatile zoom lens. Decent ISO performance due to its’ 1″ sensor (in reality 13.3mm x 8.8mm, the 1″ is deceptive vacuum tube terminology that compact camera makers use to disguise just how tiny their sensors are).
  • Canon EOS-M with 40mm pancake lens: very compact, specially considering it has an interchangeable lens mount, excellent image quality, slow AF, questionable ergonomics).
  • Canon G-X: decent optical and sensor performance but clunky design that is neither fish nor fowl, neither really compact nor flexible like a compact system camera.
  • Olympus E-PM5: reportedly very good ISO performance and AF. Wide range of m43 lenses available.

The only manufacturer missing is Nikon, which for whatever reasons does not have competitive models. Their tiny sensor Coolpix line is undistinguished to the extreme, and their 1 System, while having excellent AF, has mediocre low-light performance, is fairly bulky despite the compromised sensor, and is not competitive with the Sony RX100.

M8, a missed opportunity

Last Saturday, I became the proud owner of a Leica M8. Then, a not-so-proud owner. As of yesterday, an ex-owner…

I returned it and sprung for an Epson R-D1 instead, saving almost 50% in the process. I had already previewed one at MacWorld SF two years ago.

R-D1

Most people interested in a M8 know by now about its problems with sensitivity to near infrared, which manifests itself as a magenta cast in certain situations. There is a work-around (buy costly Heliopan or B+W IR filters for your lenses, although there are rumors Leica will provide two free filters), but many are legitimately angry at Leica for having rushed the M8 launch despite such a fairly obvious flaw. It’s not an ideal situation but I could deal with it, as long as Leica stood behind its product and committed to a free upgrade to the corrected model once a definitive fix becomes available.

The straw that broke this particular camel’s back was quality control, however, or the lack thereof. My M8 exhibited almost an entire column of dead pixels (the bottom ¾ at x=2888). If you must, see this jpeg or the original DNG. This kind of flaw would be unacceptable in a sub-$1000 Canon or Nikon, it is simply outrageous in a camera as expensive as the M8.

The magenta cast is not an edge condition visible in limited conditions, by the way (Leica claims it only affects black synthetics under tungsten light), the photos I took last Sunday indoors in available light are completely unsalvageable, with a strong magenta cast everywhere that cannot be corrected by any amount of custom white balancing. Here is an example: JPEG, DNG.

Last, but not least, noise levels are excessive at ISO 1250, let alone 2500, with smearing in rows where bright highlights are present. Essentially, this camera as it stands today is utterly useless outside broad daylight conditions (I don’t have an IR filter, so I can’t comment on how effective they are). Of course, pretty much all cameras do reasonably well in daylight, even cheap and nasty point-and-shoots with too many megapixels crammed in a sensor too small. Rangefinders give you a two stop advantage due to the absence of mirror slap, but even with a Noctilux, the M8 has no edge over a Canon DSLR because of the noisy sensor. Then again, it is one of my rules of photographic thumb that Kodak stands for poor quality, and since they make the sensor in the M8, I should have expected the worst.

It’s interesting to note how the reviews published so far managed not to mention any of these problems, which are completely obvious, even with the most cursory of inspections. In at least one case (Michael Reichmann of The Luminous Landscape), the reviewer found out about the IR issue, informed Leica about it but neglected to mention it in the review. This confirms me in my belief Phil Askey’s reviews at DPReview are the only reliable online reviews of digital cameras.

Leicaphiles seem to be mostly in denial, or minimize the extent of the problem. I am as big a fan as any of Leica’s optics and their rangefinder cameras, but the flaws in my M8 were so glaring I can’t even begin to fathom the levels of cognitive dissonance required to sustain a positive opinion of this train wreck in the making.

All the reviews I have read so far have been raising hallelujahs and claiming the M8 feels like a real Leica M. It most certainly does not:

  • The body feels much thicker than the MP, and is just as thick as the R-D1, in fact, despite not having a flippable LCD like the R-D1.
  • The lightweight magnesium body does not have the same level of robustness as the R-D1, let alone a MP, and feels more like a CM. It’s not even to the same grade as the original Digilux.
  • The lens mount lock does not snap positively and reassuringly as it should, and the release button feels cheap compared to my MP or M6TTL.
  • The shutter release is mushy and unpleasant. The shutter sound itself is a loud thunk followed by a noisy motorized re-cocking.
  • Setting ISO is buried in a menu and you need even more keystrokes to change it than on a Rebel XT (the R-D1, in comparison, has a genuine knob to set it quickly with direct feedback).
  • The rangefinder on mine was slightly misaligned vertically, something one can tolerate in a $300 Bessa, but certainly not in a M (to be fair, rangefinder patch vertical alignment is an endemic problem with the R-D1 as well).
  • In another sign of sloppiness and poor quality control, the copy of Capture One LE included in the box was missing the serial number required to activate the program.

Doug ThackerAfter using the R-D1 for a few hours, the superiority of the design over the M8 is readily apparent (with the sole exception of the taller body and short rangefinder base length):

  • The R-D1 has perfectly acceptable ISO 800 and 1600, unlike the M8, making it suitable for available light shooting.
  • The LCD screen pivots and can be turned around to protect it from scratches (or resist the temptation of chimping).
  • The viewfinder has an honest to goodness magnification of 1.0x like the original M3, not one that panders to jaded wide-angle junkies (I never shoot wider than 50mm and my MP is a 0.85x mag, so yes, I am biased)
  • The power supply is a manageable size and even has a cord, unlike the bloated wall-wart type Leica supplies with the M8.
  • The shutter speed dial goes in the traditional direction, not the M6TTL/M7 direction…

One bright light in this fiasco: Doug Thacker at Calumet Photo San Francisco (above) went well above the call of duty to help me with my purchases, all with unfailing good humor (he once sent me an email at 11PM to let me know of the IR sensitivity problem before they started receiving theirs). He even set one M8 aside for me even though I had cancelled my initial pre-order (they are in short supply and are reportedly going for over $6000 on eBay right now, so the opportunity costs are considerable). I think I will switch from B&H to Calumet for the bulk of my photo purchases in the future.

Update (2007-08-25):

I must be a glutton for punishment, as after reading Phil Askey’s M8 review, remarkably thorough as usual, I decided to give it another chance and get one for my birthday. The first one I ordered (from Amazon) had a severely misaligned rangefinder – points at infinity would not coincide at all when the lens was at infinity focus. It had a low serial number, suggesting an early model with teething problems. Presumably Amazon does not sell that many, so I returned it and ordered another one from a place with much higher turnover, B&H. That one was a recent vintage (they have an orange sticker on the body cap), but its rangefinder was also misaligned, if not as severely.

In frustration, I went to my local Calumet and finally found one that focuses correctly. Wonder of wonders, it even seems like there are no dead pixels or highlight streaks. Conclusion: Leica’s M8 quality control is still spotty, your best bet is to buy locally and test the rangefinder in the store itself.