17 September 2009

Closing Up Shop with . . . Helvetica?

I've decided to stop posting to TLP until 2010. I'm trying to complete my PhD dissertation and simply need the time and energy (and words) for that project. 15 minutes here and there does not seem like a problem, but as all bloggers know, the time really starts adding up. I need fewer distractions. I enjoy this too much. And I'm in really deep water. This was not a hard call.

I'll probably start blogging again in 2010. Maybe here, maybe on Tumblr, maybe not at all. Maybe I'll get serious about my Flickr stream instead. I'll be sure to let all of my readers know. Yes, both of you. Thanks.

So, on to Helvetica. Yes, the font Helvetica, which was made into Helvetica the movie. When fonts can be optioned as movies, you know that we really are living in an age of wonders.

When I first started working in academic publishing a number of years ago, I really became interested in typography. I've even reviewed a book on the history of Syriac typography (very interesting . . . no, really). Typography can mean the art of printing or the art of typeface design. Both are interesting, but as much as a nonartist can be, I'm especially interested in type (fonts) as an aesthetic object, as functional art.

Fonts present a fascinating paradox. We use them and look at them all day long, but they are, unless we stop and think about them, completely invisible to us. They are the ultimate signifiers. No symbol provides a more transparent container for its meaning than the strokes that form a letter.

But a letterform is surprisingly plastic and allows a subtle but broad latitude for expression. Letterforms are evocative artistic objects that shape our response to the messages they are used to convey. They have a cultural power and provoke an aesthetic response that most of us, most (or all) of the time, are completely unaware of. Simple printed letters are the most ubiquitous artforms in our lives.

Today there are tens of thousands of fonts, but a bare handful dominate most typewritten communication. At the top of the heap may be Times New Roman, the default serifed font for Windows. It's ugly and I hate it and Microsoft has flooded the world with it. Blast Microsoft.

Apple, on the other hand, commissioned a stunningly beautiful font, Hoefler Text, with which to begin the era of computer typography. Obama has made it the default font for whitehouse.gov. Only Mac users can see it, though. Blast Microsoft.

Apple adopted Helvetica as their default sans serif font. It was a logical choice. Helvetica has dominated sans serif type usage since it was introduced in 1957. You see it every single day and almost certainly have no idea. As a font, I think it is beautiful, at least in light and medium weights, and very functional for a broad range of titling and short-form uses. Unlike Times, designers use it constantly, even after 50 years. All considered, it is perhaps the single greatest font ever drafted. But Microsoft did not want to pay a licensing fee for it when they introduced Windows, so they produced an ugly knockoff called Arial. No designer uses Arial. Yet again, blast Microsoft.

I recently watched Helvetica the movie and highly recommend it. It is indeed about the font, but much more about typography, its recent history and practice, and its invisible influence on us. It does a great job of communicating the mystery of the art. As an enthusiast, I got small thrill from the interviews with some leading typographers, especially Hermann Zapf.

Zapf's designed a number of fonts, including one in particular that everyone has seen and most people have used, Palatino Linotype.* Palatino is based on Zapf's own calligraphic handwriting. It is one of only five common fonts approved for use in my PhD dissertation, and is the one I am using. So Zapf's letterforms are my constant companions. They're unique and beautiful. I never get tired of them. To meet their creator, after a fashion, was a buzz.

Helvetica the movie may be purchased from iTunes or wherever fine documentaries on typography are sold. Some clips are available here. These include an outtake of the Zapf interview and a priceless few minutes with Erik Spiekermann ("[Fonts] are my friends. Other people look at bottles of wine, or whatever, or girls bottoms. I get kicks out of looking at type. It's a little worrying, I must admit . . .").

* Microsoft originally distributed only a knockoff of Palatino Linotype with Windows, which is called Book Antiqua. Starting with Windows 2000 they have also included the authentic, Zapf-produced version of Palatino. You'll still find Book Antiqua under your font menu, but accept no imitations.

16 September 2009

iPod Thoughts

As every geek knows, Apple refreshed their iPod line last week. Is there anything to get excited about? Not a lot.

The iPod touch got a price cut for the 8gb model ($199), with 32gb ($299) and 64gb ($399) models following. All evidence points to the probability that Apple had planned to include a video camera in the new models, but had to pull it just weeks before launch, due to technical problems. That camera will likely reappear in at least the 32/64gb models in the near future, with little fanfare. Apple is not calling the new models just introduced the third generation (3G), but rather the "iPod touch (Late 2009)" models. That almost screams, "Don't buy me!"

The 32/64gb models also have new processors that make them up to 50% faster than the previous models and the current 8gb model. They also support a new graphics API which, again, the 8gb model does not. So the 8gb model may be relatively cheap now, but it is also relatively slow and will not be able to run some next-gen software. Stay away.

The new iPod nano (5G) differs very little from the previous model. It includes a VGA video camera, but that camera cannot take still photos and does not have autofocus. It's probably a $2 part and does nothing for me. But the new nano does have a slightly larger screen (.2" larger) that is also brighter (TFT), and now gets an FM radio. All that does not add up to much, and most critics see this revision as just a glomming on of gimmicks to extend its lifespan. But it remains a good basic player and I will be getting one this next year.

I won't even comment on the iPod shuffle. It's still lame.

For competition, there are some great new PMPs just out. In the shuffle class, the new Sansa Clip+ now has a microSD slot, making this tiny, brilliant-sounding player almost perfect. Starting at $40 retail, and with an 8gb microSD card being just $15, you can have a great high-capacity player the size of a matchbook for very cheap. I use my Clip constantly.

In the nano class, two new Sony S series Walkmans starting at $110 (NWZ-S544) and $150 (NW-S644) are looking to be much better players. And starting at $80 (NWZ-E443), the entry-level E series remains a real price-performance bargain. Sonys have always had better sound than iPods and support drag-and-drop music transfer, which is my preference. These models are just arriving in the US.

A Sony NWZ-S544 ($110), with some serious external stereo speakers built in and a nifty kickstand. No reviews out yet on how good they sound, but I think they are a great idea. Why didn't someone do this sooner?

Finally, just announced, the new Zune HD is Microsoft's best player yet (and they have all been good). The tough reviewers at Gizmodo even say it is simply "the best touchscreen PMP on the market." 'Nuff said.

But really, while everyone is beating Apple at hardware and value, iTunes overrides every price and performance advantage that the competition can field. I will be getting a nano, not because I especially like the nano itself, but because I need a small player with a screen that works with iTunes. I listen to podcasts on my way to work, and iPods+iTunes are by a huge margin the best solution for podcasts. In fact, for many podcasts, the only solution. They're called podcasts for a reason.

So, for better or worse, I'm still wedded to Apple.

15 September 2009

The $3.75 Million Dollar Man (and Friends)

Democratic legislators are receiving millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the Medical Industrial Complex. Baucus and friends, the "moderate" Blue Dogs who are killing the public option and defending insurance monopolies, are raking it in. Baucus alone has received $3.75 million over six years from the medical industry, one quarter of his total campaign contributions. Tell me again, why are we trusting these employees of Big Medicine to represent our national health care interests? As BusinessWeek observed over a month ago, the health insurers have already won.

Rogues' gallery here.

Max Baucus (Bozo-MT)

Addendum: The Baucus bill is out of committee and proves, as everyone knew, that he is a spineless shill for the insurance industry. The comment of one of his constituents:

    As a resident of Montana, I would like to thank Senator Baucus for all his hard work looking out for insurance companies.
    With its requirement to carry health insurance, it’s estimated that this bill will bring approximately $700 billion in new business to the health care industry.
    And since he fought hard to ensure there is no public option or, worse, a single payer option, we have the Senator to thank for making it harder for the rest of us to get affordable insurance.
    All in a day's work in Washington I guess.
    — avrds, Montana

14 September 2009

$150 Spaceshot

A group of MIT students set themselves the task of taking remote photographs from space on the cheap and, even more challenging, using off-the-shelf items with no custom hardware hacks or exotic software. The ended up buying a used Canon compact camera off of Amazon and taping it to the inside of a beer cooler. They used chemical handwarmers to keep the electronics from freezing. They also put in a pre-paid cell with GPS and auto-texting so they could track it. They hooked it all to a latex weather balloon and launched it 18 miles into the stratosphere. The total package was less than four pounds, so no FCC license was required.

Total cost was $150 and the results, on the first and only try so far, were spectacular. And anyone with basic technical ability could do the same thing from their own backyard. Project website here and iReport here.

10 September 2009


I've been in love with Japanese bento boxes from the very first time I saw them. I've looked all over town for a place that might serve them. There were a few false claimants, but no luck so far. Which makes sense. I mean, these are homemade school lunches for Japanese school children, after all. But they are also fantastic food art.

The Times just published a fun article on bentos. Don't miss the slideshow.

09 September 2009

Flickrpic: Tomatína 2009

Now, THAT's a party.

04 September 2009

Heath Care Reform?

So much is being said about the current health care legislation, but the most important thing I've personally read so far is this new article in the Atlantic by David Goldhill. It details the fundamental problems with our system, which no current reform proposal will fix. In summary, current proposals want to extend health insurance, but health "insurance" itself is the fundamental problem. That's because it is not insurance at all, but a double-blind comprehensive payment system that hides both costs and benefits from consumers, a system of "Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results." He details the problems and it's agonizing to read, because he's right and of course, once pointed out, it's so obvious.

Congress will not reform health care and is, in fact, constitutionally incapable of it. And I think Obama will accept any bill that extends health care benefits to the uninsured. In a way, I agree with his pragmatism. A runaway system is pricing the uninsured right out of health care. If you cannot reform the system, at least you can try to bring more people into it.

But let's not call such a thing reform. This is just an extension of benefits that you and I will pay for. Our health care costs are about to go up. No wonder the industrial heath care complex is running ads day and night in favor of it.

03 September 2009

A New Model for Journalism: VII

PDN just published a very interesting interview with Stephen Mayes of VII Photo Agency about the future of photojournalism, but many of his comments relate to the future of journalism generally. While some journalists are still squeaking that the big papers need to reassert some imagined monopoly and rebuild pay-walls around the business, more rational people recognize that model is dead. As Mayes says, "I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion."

But Mayes says VII is finding a new model already. A biiig pull:

    SM: [The biggest clients] have been the magazines and newspapers, and I still think that newspapers and magazines will continue to be incredibly important to our profession, but I think where previously we’ve seen magazines and newspapers as clients, I now see them very much as partners. At VII we’ll work with the magazines for distribution, but we’ll work with another party for funding, we may work another party for access and expertise, we may work with another party for technology. So what I find we’re doing increasingly is working on these multi-partnerships, amongst whom it’s hard to see who is the client.
    When you boil it down, what VII does is integrity. That issue of believability is exactly what VII does. We express it photographically, so it’s all revealed through photographs, but actually what is valuable to VII is integrity. When I look at an environment where there’s absolutely too much information, information becomes valueless. What everyone is suffering from is that a photograph is just more information. It becomes very hard to put a price on it because there are too many pictures out there, but if you suddenly start rethinking it and saying, “We’re not selling photographs, what we’re selling is believability,” then actually we have more value than we had before. VII offers a benchmark, which now has increased value because of all the information that’s out there.
    PDN: That being the case, do you envision that consumers will pay for it somehow online?
    SM: No, and I think that’s where the confusion is. I think the expectation that the user has to pay for what they’re using is again a twentieth-century notion. What I’m seeing now, increasingly, is that other people will pay for consumers to have that relation, so long as it’s a shared interest. Again, that whole notion of, “Will the press re-inflate if users are charged for content?” Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But I think it’s also missing the point on some level.
    We’re coming from a model where we’re all selling units of intellectual property, and we’re all struggling with that, the prices are going down, and it’s getting harder to sell that stuff. But you step back a little bit and you see the exact same problems being encountered in the music industry. They used to sell albums, that was their unit, that doesn’t happen anymore. You see it in the movies, the model is changing, you see it in literature— culture-wide there’s a shift away from that notion of a vendor selling that unit of intellectual property, and it’s moving away from the model of a buyer buying intellectual property. Because all of this stuff is available for free, so why should they start paying for it? But there is still value there, and the exercise that I’ve been engaged with for the last two years is identifying that value, and having found it, coming up with a way to monetize it.
    And hence you end up with these expanded partnerships where VII works with Human Rights Watch, VII works with the International Committee of the Red Cross, VII works with Time magazine and at the same time there’s a different value that we’re applying to each of them. We each share a common interest. I’m not selling something. There’s an ethical question at VII, and it may be different for a different agency or a different photographer. But with VII it has to be about believability, it has to be about partnering with the right people and not selling photographers down the line just to make money, but actually partnering them with people they believe they can work with to fulfill the things that those photographers believe in—and finding a commercial angle to them.
    As long as any of us thinks that we’re going to make money from selling photographs, I think that we’re going to be in trouble. Everyone’s complaining that it’s difficult to make a decent living selling photographs. But what I see are much bigger revenue and distribution opportunities, working in a slightly different model.

01 September 2009

Canon Day (x2)

Photography news websites around the world were taxed to the breaking point last night as Canon announced their new, highly-anticipated DSRL, the Canon EOS 7D. I'll just hit a couple of highlights (see early reviews here and here).

This camera employs a small x1.6-crop sensor (APS-C) like the Digital Rebel and xxD series, but is a brand new 18mp design. This fact means that the individual pixels are smaller than those found in any other DSLR, which is a recipe for poor performance, but Canon has pulled every conceivable trick out of their hats to ensure it performs well. In this case, "well" seems to mean as good as the 15mp 50D, which is about where it's at. Not bad, but not good enough to keep you from wanting a (more expensive) full-frame camera. Or perhaps the more sane 12mp Nikon D300s, it's main competitor.

In every other respect, it seems to equal or even surpass the Nikon D300s. It has a new metering system, extensive weather sealing, dual processors for 8fps performance, a D300s-sized 100% viewfinder, and much more. It is a major new design that rolls out many technologies which now find their way into models up and down the line. Most impressively, it has video features that probably surpass those of any other DSLR.

The Canon 7D is not a successor model, it seems, to the 5D or 50D which sit on either side. It creates a new DSLR segment for Canon corresponding to the Nikon D300s and similar models from other makers. Let's call it "premium semi-pro." I'm not so excited about the superb video features, and very unenthusiastic about the massively dense sensor. The other features are great, but mostly because they will improve models up and down the line.

But Canon's persistence in waging a megapixel war disappoints me. More than a few Canon enthusiasts were so disappointed in Canon's last megapixel semi-pro model, the EOS 50D, that they traded up from their beloved 40Ds to the Nikon D300. Canon is making the same mistake all over gain, by jacking up megapixels primarily for a marketing advantage. Serious photogs want good pixels, not many pixels, and this camera sits in a segment aimed at them. It will be interesting to watch the response.

Now for Canon Day, Part 2: I just received my Canon 40D yesterday. It was a refurb and came to me with 1366 actuations on the shutter, a fair bit of use. But other than a few light scratches on the top LCD and a few wearmarks on the hotshoe, it looks brand new.

I've only shot a few test images, but it all looks fine. I did have one heartstopper. I clicked off one frame and I think the mirror stuck, blacking out most of the image. I really (!) hope that was just an anomalous hiccup. But it has me nervous.

Otherwise, it has a much bigger viewfinder than the XT, is physically larger, and handles great. The 3" screen is actually large enough to review images on (the XT's is just too small) and the scroll wheel/joystick combo on the back is a vast improvement for navigation.

My only dislike is that it does not have enough eye relief for us eyeglass wearers, but that's the case for all camera's under about $8000. They do make an eyepiece extender to help remedy this, but it also shrinks the viewfinder. I may end up getting it anyway.

Final verdict: I love it. It feels and handles like a real camera should. I could never move back down the model line.

31 August 2009

Physical Limits in Digital Photography

Both spouse and spawn find my tech geek posts impossibly dull, but I promise that this article on the physics of digital imaging is really exiting. Starting with Nyquist limits, what the author found was . . .

Alright, alright, just a few (very geeky) bullet points:

1. The author says that as you crank up the ISO on your camera, the sensor becomes more sensitive (to both light and noise), but you also capture a narrower range of dark-to-light contrast, because "dynamic range drops nearly as fast as the sensitivity increases." Even more interesting, "most of the increase in sensitivity comes from boosting the highlights and midrange: the darkest shadows rendered at low sensitivity are almost as dark." This means that in boosting ISO you both lose dynamic range, increase noise, and gain little in shadow detail. But you also gain little in shadow detail by turning down ISO. What you get in shadow detail is largely ISO independent.

2. "Most [small-sensor DSLR] cameras have lower dynamic range than their [full-frame DSLR] competitors, so the signal-to-noise ratios in the darkest shadows at lower ISO will be slightly worse than full frame, but for the higher speeds they will be up to √2 worse." This would be for, say, a 10mp small-sensor DSLR as compared to a 21mp full-frame DSLR. For a 15mp small-sensor DSLR, it will be worse by a corresponding factor.

3. Compact cameras capture "only 1/25th the number of photons" for equivalent sensor density as compared to a full-frame DSLR. "Most cameras of that size use 8 to 12 or 15 megapixels, so the number of photons per pixel would be about 1/10 the level calculated above [for a 24mp DSLR]." So "we can see why pocket cameras may not even offer ISO 1600 and have visible problems with noise at 400 and even lower." This problem with massively reduced sensitivity and concomitant increase in noise is offset in part by reducing a compact camera's dynamic range. This "lower dynamic range [reduces] how noisy the overall picture will look. But it does not mitigate the problem in the darkest shadows: pocket cameras [need] 10 times brighter light than full frame [DSLR cameras]" to equal their light sensitivity and, therefore, shadow detail.

4. The maximum resolution at which full-frame DSLRs can resolve detail with modern lenses at f10 (their diffraction limit), without degradation, is 21-24mp. For small-sensor DSLRs, at f8 (their diffraction limit), it's about 10mp. This is generally known. Since Canon is releasing a new 18mp small-sensor DSLR tomorrow, there are a lot of skeptics wondering about image quality.

5. Finally, the most interesting bit to me. He says that 35mm film can resolve "close to or perhaps beyond 24 megapixels full frame. But it resolves such detail at very low contrast. At more modest spatial frequencies, film is noticeably worse than digital in MTF/contrast. The net effect is that the perceived crossover point where digital looks sharper than film is in the range of ~3-6 megapixels . . . After scanning some 18,000 slides, I found that my very sharpest slides, taken in contrasty sunlight on Kodachrome 25, are comparable to digital shots at about 6-10 megapixels, at least in terms of resolution (but they are worse in rendering contrast at these resolutions). But for more typical subjects, the crossover point is closer to 3-4 megapixels or less. And for higher speed film or for lower-contrast subjects, it is at 2 megapixels or even less."

He goes on to suggest that this "may account for the fact that the sudden transition from film to digital was largely unforeseen. Photographers were waiting for the ultimate resolution of digital to surpass film and unwilling to recognize that digital pictures looked sharper long before that threshold was reached. One review of one of the first 3 megapixel cameras noted as early as 2000 that the results surpassed those of Velvia film in quality."

The review he cites, by Michael Reichmann, was very controversial when it came out, but it simply points to observable visual evidence in actual photos. No physics or test charts.

There is much more there, but bottom line: A 10mp DSLR beats a 35mm film camera to pieces in terms of effective resolution and sharpness, and at least equals 6x4.5 medium-format film as well. And a latest-gen 24mp full-frame DSLR beats pretty much anything film. And for more reasons than resolution alone.

Want an example? This was shot in a dim arena at ISO2000, no flash, straight out of a Nikon D3x. Try that with film.

30 August 2009

Nikon Envy

As I've said before, I'm committed to Canon DSLRs because that happens to be the gear I own from film days. But if I were starting out fresh today, I would probably buy Nikon.

One reason is Nikon's flash metering system. It is simply better than Canon's and there is no sign that Canon will be turning this around. Their exposure metering is a bit better too.

The other reason is lenses. Both companies make great DSLRs, but over the long term, camera bodies are disposable items. They become outdated or simply break, and most consumer DSLRs are not designed or priced to be repaired. And camera bodies are the cheap bit in a camera system anyway. One good zoom lens for an entry-level DSLR will cost you as much as the camera. A great lens will cost you much more. So once you've purchased several good lenses for a particular system, you are really committed.

This is why photographers feel their chosen manufacturer should be committed to them. That means producing the gear they need and want. Both Canon and Nikon are of course committed to doing this, and they put their best resources into taking care of the professionals committed to them. And their pro gear is correspondingly great.

Where I think Nikon is distinguishing itself from Canon is in their consumer and prosumer DSLRs, which all use small-format sensors. They have pushed hard into these lower tiers, both in price and features. They have kept down pixel counts and put image quality first. At this level (my level), I think they are pulling ahead.

Nikon was slower than Canon to roll out larger full-frame sensors for their pro cameras, which put them at a competitive disadvantage. But the upside of this is that they have been more committed to the small-sensor (DX) format. That's a very good thing for us non-pros.

And this shows in their lenses. They have a broader range of 18-XXmm zooms for DX cameras than Canon, including a DX 16-85mm that is equivalent to Canon's new EF-S 15-85mm, but has preceded it by more than a year. It's a very good lens and less than $650 new (match it, Canon!).

As I mentioned yesterday, in price for optical performance, the best lenses are primes (i.e., non-zooms). As well as cheaper, they are usually much faster than zooms (= take in more light) and have less optical distortion. Unfortunately, both Canon and Nikon put most of their resources into developing zooms, since most people value their convenience over image quality. Plus they can charge more for them.

Most Canon primes are older models, and most of their new primes are professional L-series. All but one (a specialized macro) are made for full-frame cameras. This means they are larger and more expensive than they need to be for small-sensor cameras. I think this is meant to encourage consumers to move up both their camera and lens lines.

Nikon was no different, though, until this year. And then in February they introduced the first small-sensor prime, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX. It does everything right. It's very fast, taking in 4x the light of the typical standard zoom. Optical quality, though not perfect, is very good. And since it is scaled down for smaller sensors, it's cheap ($200). Best of all, Nikon has signaled that more DX primes are coming. Since this lens has proved very popular, I'm sure there are.

And I hope Canon is taking notes.

29 August 2009

When 2mm Is Big Deal

Returning my Canon SX10 and smashing my piggy bank, I've ordered a refurbished Canon 40D. I think it will work well for me.

I have a couple of decent lenses for it, from my film gear, but nothing spectacular. I have two prime lenses that, like most primes, are far sharper that any zoom for the same money. But I'd like a good zoom, and good zooms are very expensive. By "good" I do not mean a six-pound f1.2 IS DO XYZ mega-super-zoom, but just zooms that take sharp photos with good contrast. My bigger zooms are poor, but I don't care about big zooms anyway. What I need is a good all-purpose lens, a standard zoom, meaning standard wide-angle to mild-telephoto.

The basic zoom lens most everyone uses is a "kit lens," the lens that comes with most consumer DSLRs. My new 40D, being mid-range and a refurb, comes without a lens (one reason I could afford it). Only entry-level cameras come with kit lenses.  But the quality of kit lenses is a big deal for consumers, since it the only lens most people will ever use.

I have a couple of older kit lenses, including Canon's first DSLR kit lens, the (non-IS) EF-S 18-55mm (not sure if it is the mk I or mk II, but both are optically identical). While it gives you a modest wide angle zoom (28mm equiv.) for your small-sensor DSLR, this is not a good lens. However, the latest Canon kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm IS), which I do not own, is rated quite a bit better.

I do own an EF 28-105mm USM from my film days that is a modest step up from the old kit lenses, but it is only sharp stopped down to at least f5.6 and offers no wide angle on small-sensor DSLRs. So it is not really a standard zoom anyway.

The one decent standard zoom I "have the use of" (from work) is an EF-S 17-85mm IS USM, which at its introduction was a good (and not cheap) step-up lens. It has a longer zoom range than the basic kit lens as well as USM (= faster, quieter, and full-time manual focus). Optically it is a bit better, too, but not a lot. If optical quality is important to you, you really have to move even further up the ladder.

For Canon users, that has traditionally meant pro-grade L-series lenses. These are very expensive, mostly well north of $1000, and none are EF-S, meaning designed for small-sensor DSLRs. This means their wide end is not wide at all for cameras like mine. To fill this gap, Canon introduced the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8 IS USM. This is great lens, sharp and with a fast constant aperture that is the hallmark of pro lenses. But it's also a $1000 (street).

But Tuesday Canon will introduce a new SLR and at least three new lenses, two of which are EF-S for small-sensor DSLRs like mine. Details are already leaked, as well as MTF (optical performance) charts.

One is an EF-S 18-135mm IS (roughly 28-200mm equiv.) that edges into "compact superzoom" territory. Its performance does not look to be especially good, but most superzooms are optically poor, and the more super the worse. It will be another so-so step-up lens priced somewhere below the only current EF-S superzoom, the EF-S 18-200mm ($550 street).  Canon has actually droped the pricing info on the 18-200mm from their website. Maybe this new lens will replace that lemon.

The other lens is an EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. Even though the wide end is only 2mm wider than that of the 17-85mm, that still makes it 24mm equiv. Very few lenses, prime or zoom, go that wide. The only other Canon lens that wide is the EF-S 10-22mm ultra-wide zoom. It is expensive ($750 street) and, only 22mm on the long end, is definitely wide angle only.

The photographic difference between 15mm and 17/18mm (24mm and 28mm equiv.) is really huge. The difference in field of view is only ca. 8 degrees, but it looks and feels like a lot. Part of the reason for that is at 24mm you start to get some pronounced distortion effects at the edges that are absent from 28mm. You also get significant perspective distortion when close to your subject (great for silly dog photos, bad for serious people photos). Any wider and distortion careens into the realm of special effects.

This new EF-S 15-85mm will be a bomb of a lens, the perfect standard zoom for me and a lot of other people. The MTF charts (if accurate) make it a good performer and it will be priced for the prosumer rather than the pro (maybe $600-700 street). Not sure I'm really a prosumer, but I can (dimly) see one in my future . . .

28 August 2009

Supersize That

I just read a great essay on the struggles of photojournalism, a field I could happily take a run at, if I were younger and the field itself were not dying. The author makes (or implies) a point that I think is prescient. One of the major changes photojournalists will have to accommodate is the fact that in the future photojournalism is something they will need to do mostly in their own backyard, rather than in far-flung locales. The money to support such travel is fast disappearing. Photographing the familiar is not only, for most of us, less exciting, but also much more challenging. At least if we want to produce striking and creative photos. But that is what we all have to work with.

The author, Ken Jarecke, also posts a longer version of his photo-essay on his portfolio site. Not only are the photos great, but he there allows you to view them full-screen in high resolution. They fill up my 24" monitor very nicely and are dramatically more immersive and striking for it.

As I've said before (with Trey Ratcliff), I think high-resolution, onscreen viewing of photographs is the future of art photography. Likewise, I think the typical tiny online images one is usually stuck with for even the very best current photography is diminishing photography as an art. Onscreen viewing accounts for the vast majority of photo viewing, and no online image 640 pixels wide can stir the soul.

Of course there is an economic dimension to this. Publishers do not put up hi-res images partly because for cost (bandwith), partly because they are merely illustration for articles in most cases, and I'm surely partly due to licensing restrictions. But I'm really speaking here about the prosperity and future of photography as an art form, which which should concern pro photographers especially. But I'm not sure pro photographers, in general, and as much as they are suffering financially, have really embraced the new reality. It's no longer about print or prints. If you want to promote yourself and your work, get it up online. And large.

27 August 2009


I've never really gotten into the whole avatar thing, those tiny pictures of yourself (or a creative substitution) which represent you online in forums, on social networking sites, blogs, etc. I've avoided them, but now would like one for my Flickr account and, yes, my blog.

Then I happened this morning onto a good article about people having real, painted portraits done of themselves for their avatars. This in turn led me to MadMenYourself.com, which I had to try out. I'd never use it for an avatar (it's already cliche, I guess), but I love the aesthetic. Yeah, baby!

19 August 2009

Happy Canon Day!

Twice a year, in the fall and winter before the trade shows, Canon refreshes its product line. These are of course happy times for Canonistas, and sad times too, since their high expectations can rarely be satisfied.

But today Canon announced six new compact cameras, all on their high end, and there is much to be happy about. I wrote a lot last month about the megapixel race that has eroded compact camera image quality (IQ) and the decline of enthusiast-grade compacts. I also mentioned the Panasonic LX3, with its larger-than-average imaging sensor and impressive IQ, which has had enthusiasts all aflutter. In fact, even though expensive ($530), it has been extremely scarce, due to demand and also, it seems, supply issues. And then Olympus introduced its Pen E-P1, an interchangeable lens compact with a DSLR-sized sensor, which enthusiasts are wild about. Everyone has been expecting and hoping for a response from other makers. That is, more large-sensor compacts that put image quality first.

Canon's G10, its top compact, has been no slouch. It actually has a larger sensor than the Panasonic LX3, but packs in a lot more pixels, too. Even so, I think image quality is comparably good. Neither are DSLR-class.

But Canon has done something today that some pundits said they never would. Responding no doubt to the LX3, they've introduced not one but two new compact cameras with large 1/1.7" sensors like that found in the G10, but with almost a third fewer pixels (10mp vs. 14.7mp). This is a tacit act of repentance by Canon for their megapixel excesses.

The first camera is a G10 replacement, the Canon G11. It differs from its predecessor mainly in its lower pixel count and new twist-out screen. The less-dense sensor, paired with the fast Digic IV processor, is being marketed as a new "High Sensitivity System." Whatever. The camera is a laudable step forward. It does not have the LX3's 24mm wide lens, but it's 28mm wide end is fine and it has a much longer and more useful long end, 140mm vs. the LX3's pathetic 60mm. Overall, I think the G11 will beat it handily.

The second large-sensor compact is a real surprise. Years ago Canon retired its enthusiast-grade Compact S series, though the S70 from 2004 is still considered a very fine camera. Today they introduced a new Canon S90, a worthy successor, with same 10mp 1/1.7" sensor as the G11, a very fast (f/2) 28-105mm lens, RAW support, and a very intriguing lens control ring, in a small and pocketable card-camera format. I absolutely love it, but could wish it were cheaper ($430 list). But enthusiast-grade cameras are always pricey.

Canon also upgraded two of their superzooms, the SX10 IS and SX110 IS, to the SX20 IS and SX120 IS respectively. Mostly just megapixel bumps (boo), but the SX20 also got 720p HD video (yeah). The best news here is this should drive down the price of the SX110 (review) to bargain levels. It will certainly be the best compact superzoom for the money, and with its full manual controls, replaces nicely the high-end A series cameras which Canon killed. There may be an SX110 somewhere in my future.

I'll pass over the two new Digital ELPH models (for all, see Canon's website), but they are good upgrades. For myself, the three main things I want to see in new compacts are better image quality, wider and faster lenses, and bigger, better and higher-res screens. Across these various models, Canon delivered on all three. Now I'm really looking forward to the next Canon Day, probably Sept. 1, when its new DSLRs are announced. If rumor holds, the new 60D/7D will have a full-frame sensor and be priced to compete with the new Nikon D300s (ca. $1800, body only). Stay tuned.

16 August 2009

DSLRs: Less Is More

I've posted before about how more megapixels is a bad thing in compact cameras. I pointed out that the Fujifilm F30/F31fd cameras, with a modest 6.3mp, produced better photos than brand new 12mp compacts. It comes down to a fact of physics that smaller pixel sites packed closer together on any given size of sensor will gather less light and generate more noise than fewer, larger pixels. Past a certain point, cramming more pixels on a sensor is just a cynical marketing gimmick.

I've been disappointed to read that manufacturers have now crossed the megapixel quality line in DSLRs with small-format sensors, a format called DX by Nikon and APS-C by Canon. These sensors are used widely in entry- and mid-level cameras. They are much smaller than the full-frame 35mm sensors in the top-of-the-line DSLRs, though MUCH larger than compact camera sensors.

The blue (1.5x) and red (1.6x) rectangles represent DX/APS-C sensors respectively. Most compact camera sensors are smaller than even the innermost 1/3" sensor size.

DX/APS-C sensors have to this point produced superb, low-noise images even at ISOs as high as 1600. This allows, for example, the effective use of even entry-level DSLRs for night photography. Their main disadvantage as compared to larger full-frame sensors has been in megapixel counts, crop factor, and diffraction.

Crop factor is the reduced field of view that smaller sensors offer, which effectively turns that great 24mm wide-angle lens from your film camera into a 40mm normal lens on your DSLR. This is very problematic, and pushes people up to full-frame cameras in itself.

Diffraction means, in practice, that as you reduce your aperture, usually for increased depth of field, the point at which image quality starts to degrade increases as pixel density increases. So you may start to see diffraction at f7.4 on a 15mp APS-C camera, but only at f11 on a 16mp full-frame camera.

I have not read many reviews on Nikon cameras, since I shoot Canon. But I think Nikon is still putting quality imaging first. On Canon APS-C DSLRs, tests show that the latest 15mp models, the entry-level T1i and mid-range 50D, both have slightly poorer image quality than earlier models with 12mp or less, like the XSi and 40D. Dpreview concludes that the "40D stills beats the newer model [50D] in terms of per pixel detail. Despite a 22% increase in vertical and horizontal resolution the extra detail captured by the 50D is marginal." The 12.3mp sensor in Nikon's D90 and several other models beats it, too. It's looking like 12mp is about as high as you can go on DX/APS-C sensor while retaining optimal image quality.

Also, noise levels have really taken a jump, especially when working with RAW images ("digital negatives"). So, again dpreview: "When shooting in RAW the 500D [T1i] actually shows visibly more noise at higher ISOs than its predecessor [XSi]."

Two other problems are, first, as explained above, diffraction has necessarily increased as megapixels have risen. Perhaps more seriously, at these pixel densities it takes really good lenses to resolve images sharply, so that with the T1i, "At least towards the edges of the frame the kit-lenses struggle to resolve all the detail in a scene."

All together, when viewing T1i and XSi images side by side, the differences in quality are very apparent. Our reviewer concludes, "The 'extra quality' you can usually get out of RAW files compared to shooting in JPEG is relatively limited on the 500D [T1i]. One reason for that is the quality of the camera's JPEG engine. It is doing a pretty good job at 'optimizing' the JPEG output when converting the RAW data. However, the 500D's [T1i's] RAW images are also slightly lagging behind some of the competition and surprisingly even the 450D [XSi] in terms of high ISO noise and to a smaller degree in terms of pixel level detail. It's not going to be an issue when checking images at screen size but it's certainly visible up-close."

Canon should be introducing two or more new DSLRs on Tuesday (or Sept. 1; rumors vary). Almost certainly a new 7D to replace the 50D and a downspeced T1 to slot beneath the T1i. I'm now a little less enthusiastic about the T1i and will be interested to see what these new models bring to the table. Very sensibly, rumor has it that the new 7D will not increase in megapixels. I think Canon realizes that they've crammed all the pixels they can on a APS-C sensor without seriously damaging the image quality. Already they've gone a little too far.

For myself, I'm now looking at a refurbished Canon 40D or perhaps a slightly less expensive Canon XSi. There are pros and cons to both, but I'm leaning towards the 40D. It's 10mp are enough for me and it has a much better viewfinder than the XSi. That's important to me. But we'll also see what the new product launch brings.

15 August 2009

Greatest Movies Ever Made

This article by Roger Ebert is certainly worth a look by any movie fan. I personally love Ebert as a critic and rarely find myself disagreeing with him. His comments on the inherent utility of such lists ("propaganda") should be noted, but at the same time, he gives it a thumbs up. Worth a browse for any cinephile. And I guess I need to go watch "The Night of the Hunter."

10 August 2009

Photojournalism: A Death by Inches

Reading about the history of photography lately, it's amazing how many revolutions this art form has gone through in its brief lifetime. Photography in the form we know it, portable and widely used on a variety of subjects, only came into being in the late 1870s. And then it was only after another fifty years that it really started to find its own voice and become the modern medium we all know.

Very important to photography's history is photojournalism. The most important single body of photos from the 19th century are certainly Mathew Brady & Co.'s images of the Civil War. A majority of the most iconic photos of the 20th and 21st centuries, at least among non-photographers, comes out of photojournalism, though a close second place must be awarded to fashion/celebrity portraiture (same thing to me; think Annie Liebovitz). Both those genres of photography have of course flourished because there has been money in them. They produce iconic images because, as staples of mass media, a lot of people see them.

For photojournalism, that is decreasingly the case. The NY Times just published today an article titled, "Lament for a Dying Field: Photojournalism." The story was filed under business, not art, but I see it as the death of an art form.

But only in a certain respect. As a professional art form, photojournalism has been in decline for some time, due to shifts in media. Its heyday directly corresponds to the heyday of its most prominent vehicle, Life magazine in its Henry Luce era, which ran as a weekly from 1936-1972. Its popularity funded ambitious photojournalist projects like those of W. Eugene Smith. Life and its style of photojournalism was basically killed by television.

Photojournalism has ever since been less an independent vehicle of expression than illustration, but demand for it in print media has been sufficient that the talented and determined photojournalist has still been able make a living at it. But with the decline of print media and revenues, as the NYT article describes, photojournalists are in the same dire straits as all other journalists.

Journalism and photojournalism will both survive in different forms, but it seems likely that many fewer people will be doing it professionally. That may especially be the case with photojournalism. My own concern is less for people who have to find new careers (hey, that's life) than for how this will affect the medium of photography and our visual literacy, as well as (with all journalism) the deep coverage of socially significant events and issues.

This will not mean fewer photographs are made and published. Never have more photographs been made and published. I'm not even sure that, in spite of increasing amaturization, fewer brilliant photographs will be published. I think professionals may produce great photos as much through opportunity and volume as by pure artistic talent. Some of even the most significant "professionals" in the history of photography, like Alfred Stieglitz, were not the greatest photographers, while amateurs like Julia Margaret Cameron and Jacques Henri Lartigue produced images of enduring artistry and historical importance.

But with the greater diffusion of photographs across the internet, fewer photos and photographers will enjoy the universal exposure that they once enjoyed when media channels were narrower, and therefore fewer icons will be produced. And I think icons, both iconic artists and iconic works, are necessary for the cultivation of an art. They focus collective attention, produce criticism, and provide the common points of reference needed for literacy.

So all this seems to bode ill for photojournalism, as a career and, perhaps, as an art. But will this also be detrimental to photography in general as an art?

08 August 2009

Two and Null for Cameras

I'm not good at taking my own advice. After ripping at length on the poor image quality of compact cameras, I blew the last of my cash on two of them. One I got and returned, and the other is never coming.

As I mentioned, I did buy a Canon SX10, refurbished. It came with a small blemish on the lens coating, but otherwise was clean. The functionality was very good and the movie mode was great. At $300, for a very good compact superzoom, it did all it promised.

But the image quality was still just "compact" quality, which is not even close to DSLR quality. And the lens was also soft in one corner on the wide end. Given that it was about as big and expensive as a refurbished DSLR, and with image quality as a priority, there was no sense in owning and using an SX10. So I've returned it.

The great virtue of compacts is that they are compact, so I also purchased a Canon SD1100, which is a very small "card compact." I want to have a camera on me all the time, and the SD1100 was quite inexpensive, small and light. Unfortunately, Dell canceled my order, due to unavailability of product. So, two and null.

At the same time, Adorama has made available a few more refurbished Canon A590s, which have been discontinued and otherwise dried up in retail channels. It is a popular compact camera with enthusiasts because it is one of the last entry-level compacts Canon (or anyone) has made that offers SLR-type exposure controls (Manual, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, etc.). It also has optical image stabilization and, while plastic, performs to Canon's usual high standards.

And importantly to me, it can use a hacked firmware called CHDK, which gives supported Canon compacts all kinds of amazing capabilities they otherwise lack, such as RAW file support, RGB live histogram, ultra-high shutter speeds, scripted actions, and tons else. It really is off-the-charts crazy great stuff for camera geeks, and I have to have a least one camera that can run it. For less than a Benjamin, this SD590 will do the job just fine.

Otherwise, I'm just saving up for DSLR gear. I have the use of an old Canon Rebel XT from work, but will probably replace that with a refurbished Canon Rebel XSi in the not too distant future. Next stop beyond that will be a Rebel T1i. But in Life After Dissertation, I'll be setting my sights on a professional camera and lens, namely a Canon 5D Mark II with the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS zoom.

Hey, let me dream.

04 August 2009

Nikon D300s: Another Great DSLR Hybrid

I shot a couple of movies on our new Canon SX10 last weekend. They look great but the Youtube conversions came out awful. But while I'm trying to figure that out, I wanted to share a movie made with Nikon's new DSLR, the D300s. It is priced about $700 less than that other great DSLR hybrid I've blogged on, the Canon 5D Mark II, though not entirely in the same league. It has a smaller sensor, and just 12mp vs. 21mp, but the digital video quality is again impressive.

29 July 2009

Nikonians and Canonistas (Part 2)

I own the first consumer-model autofocus SLR produced by Nikon in 1986, the N2020 (thanks, Dad!). Apart from a chunkier lens, the camera could pass for any 80s-era Nikon MF camera. The AF is somewhat slow and loud, but it works well enough. I've taken some great photos with it, including a few that are priceless.

In fact, I even have photos of me taking photos with it. And photos of my dad trying to teach (a younger and larger) me how to take photos with it.

Here I am at Yellowstone's Grand Canyon, trying to figure out how to run my fancy Nikon.

I always wanted a Nikon as a kid, thanks to an enthusiast father, and that N2020 was great. So when I decided to invest in an SLR system about seven years ago, I was torn between Nikon and Canon. Nikon had that irresistible caché, but Canon won me over, for two reasons.

First, at the bottom end of their product line, I felt that Canon simply gave me more value for money, while at the top end, both companies make superlative gear. This has long been the case, though Nikon has now largely closed that gap in their DLSRs. But in digital compacts, Canon consistently makes market-leading cameras while Nikon runs middle of the pack. Nikon has always prioritized pro gear over consumer products. They've earned their reputation among pros. But I don't buy pro gear.

More importantly, Canon's autofocus EF lenses were from the beginning much better than their Nikon autofocus counterparts. As mentioned, Nikon chose to go with in-body autofocus to retain basic compatibility with their F-series manual focus lenses. In-body AF is inherently inferior to in-lens AF like Canon's. This fact has forced Nikon to introduce lenses with Canon-like in-lens focusing motors (AF-S), but they sell for a premium. And the fact that in-body autofocus makes cameras more expensive means that Nikon has started abandoning it altogether with some lower-priced DSLRs, forcing users to buy pricey AF-S lenses for them anyway.

All this has contributed to the bewildering proliferation of Nikon lens styles and standards. In the mean time, all Canon EF lenses work the same on all EOS cameras. They have a couple of flavors, but they're straightforward. Even Canon's most basic lenses are fast and quiet, but their USM lens are amazingly so. Even better, most USM lenses allow full-time manual focus without having to disengage the AF. For me, that is a big deal. Auto focus, manually adjust if needed, and click.

Canon's design and strategy won them over a lot of pros from Nikon, especially where fast focusing cameras were essential, like sports photography. All those white lenses you see at sporting events are Canon's big glass.

A sea of giant Canon L-series lenses. Every kit here cost $10k on up.

Canon kept up the heat when it entered the DSLR race with superb CMOS sensors and the first full-frame (35mm) sensors. But Nikon has certainly kept competitive and shows signs of becoming even more so.

But both Nikon and Canon enthusiasts, Nikonians and Canonistas, have good reason to be devoted to their equipment. Both companies make superb DSLR cameras and lenses. Right now, if I were starting over, I don't know that I would necessarily go Canon, but not because I'm in any way dissatisfied. I might be tempted away from Canon by pure vanity. I mean, Nikon is Nikon.

28 July 2009

Nikonians and Canonistas (Part 1)

Anyone even modestly familiar with modern photography will know that the two main rival manufacturers are Nikon and Canon. They have been slugging it out most earnestly since Canon introduced the pro Canon F-1 system in 1971, challenging Nikon from then to today for dominance among professional 35mm photographers.

Nikon has long had powerful, iconic appeal. It invented the modern SLR system with the 1959 introduction of the Nikon F, which was widely adopted by professionals. Several other makers developed similar SLR systems, but in the SLR golden age of the 1970s, Nikon and Canon reigned supreme.

The turning point for both companies was in the late 80s, with the advent of autofocus (AF). Second-tier companies are often freer to innovate that market leaders, because market leaders must protect the success of existing product lines. So it was Minolta who first moved their SLR line to autofocus beginning with the Maxxum 7000 in 1985. This camera was hugely successful and it forced Nikon and Canon to adopt autofocus or die. They both had tried it out in novelty products, but now it was clear they had to make a wholesale switch to AF systems.

Both companies, and their customers, had invested enormous resources into manual-focus (MF) systems. This was a most important consideration with respect to lenses. A professional photog with many $1000s invested in MF lenses would be loath to buy an AF camera body on which they would not work. Nikon, in particular, had been producing F-mount lenses since 1959 that worked on even their most modern cameras. And that Nikon glass enjoyed iconic status.

The full complement of Nikon F-series lenses from the mid-70s.

There were two basic routes makers could take in AF SLR design. The first was to make AF lenses electro-mechanical, housing a mechanical focusing mechanism in the camera body which linked to the lens. This made lenses lighter and cheaper, and also enabled manufacturers to retain compatibility with older MF lenses (even if losing AF and perhaps some metering functions when employing them). The downside was that in-body mechanical systems could never be as fast and quiet as all-electronic systems. It also made camera bodies more expensive.

The second option, then, was to house focusing drives in the lenses themselves and make the lens-body linkage purely electronic. But with this design, no MF lenses would work with the camera at all. This would therefore make sense for a maker without a legacy MF system to support, but otherwise you would both risk alienating longtime loyalists and require yourself to produce an entirely new system from scratch.

It probably made sense at the time for Nikon to go the electro-mechanical route, which they did. They had an unparalleled legacy system to protect. Canon had a little less to lose and more to gain. But it was still a bold stroke for them to break entirely with their FL/FD manual-focus systems and introduce the purely electronic EF lens mount with their new EOS camera system, starting with the EOS 650 in 1987.

But Canon made the right move. (Part 2)

27 July 2009

Get Your Bokeh On

Bokeh is the photographic effect of out-of-focus highlights in a photo, especially the rendering of points of light. The term comes from the Japanese word for fuzziness. But no real need to explain what it is. Here is an example:

The out-of-focus circles of light, the bokeh, is really the subject of this photograph.

Photographers love bokeh. They debate what is good bokeh and what is bad. Many would say, for example, that the bokeh in the above photo is ugly "doughnut" bokeh, with hard outer edges. The theoretical ideal is that bokeh should have edges that are completely undefined, i.e., fuzzy. So this photo is said to have fantastic bokeh:

Photographers debate which cameras and lenses produce the best bokeh. Minolta and Leica went through a period of designing lenses that specifically produced good bokeh. Nikon makes expensive "Defocus Control" (DC) lenses which let you manipulate bokeh. Different numbers of blades in a lens diaphragm also affect bokeh. With six-blade diaphragms, very common in cheaper lenses, "bad" bokeh will often turn into hexagons. You can count seven diaphragm blades in this "bad bokeh" photo:

No disputing matters of taste, but I kinda like bad bokeh. And good bokeh. I just flat like bokeh. So do a lot of other people. Hence all the groups dedicated to bokeh on Flickr.

The bad news is that bokeh is hard to achieve with a digital compact camera. One of the problems is that the tiny lenses and sensors in compacts produce enormously deep depth of field, and bokeh is a shallow depth of field effect. You can produce a kind of fake bokeh in Photoshop, but your picture will look photoshopped. Bokeh is mostly an SLR thing.

But I'll just take it wherever I can get it.

26 July 2009

FlickrPik: A Little Nostalgia

I love this photo of a Canon AE-1 Program, mostly 'cause I had mine out today. I bought it off eBay about 5 years ago for a modest amount, not expecting much, but it turned out to be pristine. It even came with the optional power drive. The AE-1P was one of the last great manual focus cameras that Canon made before going to autofocus. The subsequent T-series of cameras was a bust, apart from the expensive T90, which was quickly killed by the new autofocus EOS line.

It is a pleasure to use, but looking through that viewfinder reminded me of an important fact. I have lousy eyes and am very grateful for modern autofocus cameras. I could never go back.

24 July 2009

FlickrPik: Hohenzollernbrücke

I'm starting to learn Flickr and really enjoy just browsing around some of the groups. This is actually from a camera-specific group for the Canon SD1100, which is on my to-buy list (another post, naturally). I'm going to start posting some of the photos that catch my eye here on TLP. (By the way, I'm posting this directly from Flickr, my first attempt.)

From the photographer: "This is the Hohenzollernbrücke, a large railway bridge which spans the river Rhine in Cologne. Lovers like to attach a padlock with their names engraved to the fence which separates the walkway from the railway tracks. Over the last months hundreds of padlocks have piled up on the bridge."


No, this is not a Michael Jackson post (sorry to disappoint). I've enjoyed the coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this week. Particularly cool were two discoveries. The first is the unveiling of Moon on Google Earth, which is just part of a more extensive collaboration between Google and NASA. It is, as you can guess, a moon version of Google Earth.

The other item is an online archive of all photographs from the last mission to land on the moon, Apollo 17. Thumbnails would be nice, but there are some brief descriptions for each item. Best of all, they put up both small and quite large images of each photo. The sample below is linked out to its large version. And if you like that, also check out the more comprehensive Apollo Image Atlas. About 20,000 photos were taken across all the Apollo missions. Love that classic Kodachrome look (Ektachrome, actually). Great stuff.

I just have to get around to watching again From the Earth to the Moon.

23 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 6)

So, after all this, here you are.You want to buy a compact camera. Maybe even two, a snapshotter and something a little more serious. You've read loads of reviews and compared test images until your eyes crossed. What should you buy?

For me, image quality is obviously important. The good news right now is that, even if they are not making low-noise compacts, camera manufacturers are getting very good at processing the noise out, at least at low ISOs. And I find that some cameras process the noise in such a way that it results in a film-like grain that is not unpleasing. I actually prefer a little aesthetic noise to overly-aggressive noise suppression, which blurs all fine detail out of images. Many images from compacts have a strange, creamy smoothness, even at low ISOs, caused by noise suppression. At least some of that cannot be avoided in even the best of these cameras.

I think all one can do is evaluate sample photos in camera reviews and decide yourself which camera you personally find least bad. And this almost has to be done on a model by model basis. A few makers (notably Canon) have a certain look they maintain quite consistently, but most do not. The main determinant is the particular sensor and image processing chip used in (very often) a range of camera models.

For example, Panasonic is now using a new 10mp 1/2.5” sensor and Venus Engine IV processor in several cameras across their line. I think the images this combo produces look very good, with low noise and great color and detail (samples here). So for our new family snapshot camera I am looking at an entry-level Panasonic FS7. For the money ($140), it looks very good.

I've also decided to buy an enthusiast-grade camera for myself to replace my old, partly-fried Canon G3. I want something that is SLR-class, with full manual controls, to teach my daughter photography with. That basically means a superzoom. I wish I could settle for the value-priced Fujifilm S1500, but the image quality is not quite there and some users have reported fatal hardware/software problems.

So I've just ordered a Canon SX10 IS. I've owned a lot of Canon gear and find it consistently good. The SX10 has been very highly rated and has a number of features I value, like a twist-out rear screen, exceptional EVF, highly-intuitive menuing, flash hotshoe, and great image-stabilized lens.

I've also always liked the "Canon look" in images. Noise suppression is aggressive, but the in-camera sharpening is strong and produces crisp images right off the card. Color is regularly described as "vivid but natural." Whatever that means, I like it. This Flickr photostream by bEbO (en vac), all shot on an SX 10, tipped me.

The SX10 costs a bit more than I wanted to spend, but I was able to buy it refurbished at a substantial discount. I think the two of us will be happy together. Now I'm just waiting on that UPS man.

22 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 5)

I am prepared to embrace the truth about consumer compact cameras. No current camera in this category will produce images comparable to a DSLR. Most are not even close. That is a serious problem for me, but it may not be a problem for most people.

Most people, I think, still take photos to make prints, mostly 4x6s. They may look at photos on screen, maybe even mostly on screen, but still they are concerned primarily about making good prints of key photos. For that, most consumer compacts do just fine. Most of these users will not see any difference between a 4x6 from the cheapest Kodak compact and the most expensive Nikon DSLR. Blessed are they.

Not me. I’m a “pixel peeper,” someone with a fetish for pixel-level fidelity. I look at photos exclusively on big LCD monitors where every flaw is revealed. And I also believe that on-screen viewing is the near-exclusive future of photography. As Trey Ratcliff says: “I believe that the future of ‘looking’ at photography will be online. Monitors will continue to get bigger, resolutions will get bigger, and bandwidth will get faster. Imagine a day several years in the future, when people have giant art flatscreens in their house, and your high-fidelity photos will be filling them with incredible walk-up detail.”

Right now the choice for me is either a DSLR, with the expense, weight, risk of theft, anxiety for damage, etc., that entails, in pursuit of great images, or pick up a consumer compact I can use and abuse without concern and be content with its limitations. I’m going the latter route. And frankly, it’s what I can afford right now.

But I'm not all that sour about it. The latest compact cameras have several features that really are worth upgrading for. Leaving image quality aside, I'll note three:

1. Sensor-based shake reduction or (better) lens-based optical image stabilization (OIS) is very important. It will sharpen up your photos and give you one or two extra f-stops of exposure. This is a huge deal for compacts since you really have to use them at low ISO settings for good image quality. But, not all makers and cameras are equal with their shake reduction/OIS. Read the reviews.

2. Better LED screens. Not just bigger, but better in terms of resolution, color fidelity, and viewability in sunlight and at off-angles. Big screens suck your batteries dry, so I'm fine with 2.5". But it better be 230k and usable in daylight. One of my biggest gripes with my old Canon G3 is its terrible low-res 1.8" LCD. You just cannot effectively check capture quality on it.

3. Good scene modes with automatic selection. Most snapshot cameras have loads of different scene modes. Some are gimmicky (food mode?) and others are very useful (backlight correction). The new ability for cameras to automatically select the right mode is great in theory. No more need to switch to macro mode for close-ups. But I'll be interested to see for myself how accurately it works in practice. Anyhow, for snapshotters, this is brilliant.

Next: Conclusion (finally!)

21 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 4)

Manufacturers and pundits tend to distinguish between consumer and prosumer compact cameras, but there is no hard consensus on where to draw the line. I'll make it simple. I draw the line at $400. Above that and, any more, you are into DSLR territory in terms of cost. Anyone willing to pay as much for a compact as a DSLR definitely rates the title prosumer.

That settled, clearly there are some prosumer compacts that take great photos. Some are superzoom style, meaning they are just smallish SLRs in form as well as price. They are therefore sometimes called "bridge cameras." Of these, I like very much the Fujifilm S100FS ($530 street). It has a large 2/3" Super CCD sensor and 28-400mm lens that makes it a very good all-arounder.

It is debatable whether a superzoom camera is a compact, since it certainly won't fit in even a cargo-pant pocket. But there are also a few superlative prosumer pocketable compacts. For example, the Panasonic LX3 has a larger 1/6.3" sensor carrying a relatively modest 10.1mp, and the image quality is very good. It is housed quite compactly and paired with a fast and very wide 24-60mm (equiv.) f2.8-3.0 lens. The telephoto range is a bit short, and it is not cheap ($550 and up, street), but still, as one reviewer notes: “The LX3 is an example of a species so endangered that we were beginning to worry it had become extinct - a compact camera that photographers can get excited about.”

Panasonic LX3

The big problem in the compact segment is of course sensor sizes and pixel counts. I've just mentioned two cameras that use larger than average sensors. But most pricey prosumer cameras just use the same tiny, noisy sensors as models downmarket. That's right, same image quality as cheaper models. Price does not often buy you better images in compacts.

But I think this trend will turn around, at least a little. The most encouraging rumor to me is that the next Canon G-series camera will have a full DSLR-sized (APS-C) CMOS sensor, paired with a very modest, but doubtless fast and sharp 24-70mm zoom. It should therefore be a big one-up on the Panasonic LX3. It will also cost north of $600, certainly, but I get excited even about great cameras I can't afford.

But what about consumer cameras? The ones we can afford? (Part 5)

Update: Fujifilm is updating their S100FS to a new model, the S200EXR, which will have (you guessed it!) a smaller sensor with more megapixels. Oh Fuji, will you never learn?

20 July 2009

Fallen Giant

I was shocked to read last night that Wall Arch on the Devils Garden Primitive Loop, Arches NP, collapsed during the night of August 4th, 2008. Wall Arch was formerly the 12th largest in Arches NP and a favorite place to stop and munch a granola bar when hiking the Garden. I took this "before" photo in 2005 (click for larger view). News release with an "after" photo may be seen here. Of course, having an arch in the park collapse in one's lifetime is the rarest of events. But I really don't feel a sense of history. Just sadness. Farewell, old friend.

18 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 3)

Almost all compact cameras are simply throwaways. Unlike my Yashica, nobody will be buying my old 4mp Canon A510 compact off eBay in 40 years and marveling that, even by 2050 standards, it produces pretty damn impressive photos.

Of course, manufacturers are not in the business of making products so great that no one wants to replace them. In fact, that would put them out of business. So I guarantee that your next compact camera will have more megapixels and a bigger screen than your current. But I also know of a four year-old compact that will take better pictures than that new camera.

Fujifilm has employed in some cameras a unique “Super CCD” sensor design that produces superb, low-noise images. In 2006 they wisely decided to use it in a compact with a larger than usual sensor (1/1.7”), aiming for superlative image quality. The Fujifilm F30 and subsequent F31fd cameras have since become legendary among enthusiasts. As can be seen from test photos, the images they produce, even at higher ISOs, are impressively crisp and clean. Even if not DSLR quality, and just a modest (but sufficient) 6.3mp, these cameras are still ahead of most or all new consumer-segment compacts.

Fujifilm Finepix F30

Unfortunately, while critical response was strong, consumer response was modest. These cameras necessarily cost a bit more and, for that money, lacked marketing-friendly features like giant LCDs, superzoom lenses, and ridiculous pixel counts. So Fuji caved, ramped up pixel counts, and destroyed the superb image quality. Now a used Fujifilm F30/F31fd goes for absurd prices on eBay. Even serious SLR-toting photogs like to have a good compact on hand, and are willing to pay for it.

So, for just such serious shoppers, what are the current options? (Part 4)

17 July 2009

Orwellian Irony

The latest Kindle-bad/books-good story, reported by the NYTimes, is satisfying on soooo many levels. I won't spoil it with a rehash. Just read it and then go curl up with your own dog-eared paper copy of 1984 from high school.

16 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 2)

We all know that the resolution of digital cameras is measured in megapixels, and a pixel is a single point in an image. Each pixel reproduces a single point of color. Aggregated together, those points of color comprise a photo. These pixels are generated by a photo sensor, onto which these pixels sites are packed very tightly together. Their proximity causes them to interfere with each other, increasingly more as exposure time or sensitivity (ISO) is increased. This interference is registered as noise in your photo, sometimes called “digital grain.”

Except, whereas photo film grain can be rather aesthetic, digital noise is plain ugly. In fact, one of the biggest differences between camera models and brands is how effectively the manufacturers manage image noise. They expend enormous resources to engineer noise out of their cameras, in part because they are constantly building more noise into them.

The dilemma is this. One really expensive part of a digital camera is the imaging sensor, and the smaller the sensor the smaller the lens and camera overall, all of which drives costs down dramatically. But the only way to shrink the sensor is to shrink the pixels and limit or reduce pixel count, or else crowd those pixels closer together. Making more noise.

Since raising pixel count is a vital marketing tool, due to consumer ignorance (everyone likes a simple better-than metric), the only option is to make those pixels smaller and pack them tighter to fit ever more on those chips. And the smaller and denser the sensor, the less dynamic range it has and the more noise it produces. Sensor size and pixel density are critical bits of information, but manufacturers do not advertise them. When you do find the sensor size for a camera, the specification is arcane, leaving you to crack the code.

I mentioned dynamic range (DR). This is the total range of tonality, between the lightest and darkest parts of an image, that a camera's sensor can record. Image data that exceeds this range is clipped, meaning lighter details turn to white and darker details to black. The tiny sensors and lenses of compacts gather and record a much narrower dynamic range than DSLRs. This is a critical issue for image quality. More than anything, compressed DR gives compact camera images that compact camera look. In addition to high noise and reduced DR, compacts also tend to exhibit more chromatic aberration (purple fringing of highlights) and optical defects, due to their little, cheap lenses which have to resolve ever more optical information.

So now we have 12 megapixel compact digicams with itty bitty sensors packed with itty bitty pixels that generate almost as much noise as clean data. Camera makers have therefore become wizards at managing noise. They smear it around and apply all kinds of clever algorithms to disguise it. Given the garbage these sensors produce, what they extract from them is pretty amazing, at least at low ISOs and short exposures. But the overall trend to make more and worse pixels is tremendously discouraging to those who value image quality, or want to do less-than-perfect-light photography, even with compact cameras.

DSLRs take the beautiful, clear, noise-free images that we all want, because they have big sensors with large pixels that produce superb pixel-level fidelity. Couldn’t compact cameras be made to do the same thing, maybe even at terrific compact camera prices? Yes and no. (Part 3)

15 July 2009

Compact Digital Cameras: This Is Progress? (Part 1)

I own a Neolithic predecessor to today’s compact digicams, a Yashica GS 35mm rangefinder camera from the early 70s. It was, in its day, a cheap but good Japanese alternative to the seminal Leica M4. But because the quality of film stock, processing, and printing are such crucial elements for a film image, even a cheap but good film camera, in the right hands, can produce photos almost as good as the most expensive gear. So as one modern user notes, the Yashica gives you “90% of the image quality [of a Leica M4] at less than 5% of the price.” I paid about $20 for mine and it still works almost as well as it did new.

A film camera is just a lightbox. Assuming the shutter mechanism is accurate, the quality of a film image (on the camera level) is determined simply by correct focus, correct exposure, and the quality of the lens.

Those first two variables, on cameras like the Yashica and Leica, are mostly left up to the user. As for the lens, the Yashica has a 45mm f1.7 Yashinon that is much faster than even the fastest modern zoom, and surprisingly sharp. With good film and a capable user, the Yashica can indeed produce Leica-caliber photos.

In contrast, modern digital cameras are separated much more in image quality by engineering, components and, consequently, price. Unlike days past, you now have to pay for image quality mostly on the front end, in your digital camera purchase, rather than mostly on the back end, in film and processing.

Don't think for a second that this is a bad thing. The economics of digital are great. Really great. Photography has never been cheaper. But skimping on your camera purchase, or making a bad camera choice, can really only be remedied by buying another camera. Informed buying has never been so important for photographers of all levels.

But it is an unfortunate fact that while my $20 Yashica can produce Leica-caliber photographs, a compact digicam takes nothing like the quality of photographs that DSLR and DSLR-class prosumer cameras do. And most digi-compacts can’t touch my Yashica, either, at least when it is in capable hands. In fact, some modern compacts produce worse quality images than the models they replace.

Here’s why . . . (part 2)

24 June 2009

Canon T1i: Stupid Name, Brilliant Camera

I posted last week on the great HD video capabilities of the Canon EOS 5D Mk II DSLR (= 5D2). It runs about $2500. For me, they may as well add a few more zeros on to that, 'cause in any case I can't touch it.

But I could, nay, will someday lay hands on Canon's new EOS Rebel T1i, known as the 500D to the rest of the world. Why Americans always get stuck with nonsense branding from Canon, I have no idea. But I shoot Canon, so I'll put up with it.

The Rebel series is Canon's entry level line of DSLRs. They have generally been very good cameras which Canon hobbles by deleting pro features, less to save cost than to drive people up their line. They could easily do much more at that price point but have felt no need. Like Apple, they've mastered the craft of giving their customers a good enough product to thoroughly please them, but not one so good that they might truly be content with it. So the Rebels have been consistently better than the competition while always lacking those one or two things you really want (DOF preview, certain manual controls, Live View, whatever).

But I think Canon screwed up their own fiendish plan with the new Rebel T1i. First, they the put in the great 15.1mp sensor from their mid-line 50D, which runs $500 more than the T1i and, while carrying a few more features, does not do HD video like the Rebel. I expect that model is soon to be replaced.

I will not do a review here, but rather see here and here. The vital 411 is this: the Rebel T1i can shoot 720p HD video @ 30fps, and full 1080 @ 20fps. And if the video quality is not equal to that of the 5D2, it is still very good for a $900 camera.

I've been ogling the Canon HD200 camcorder for about $600, but in 18 months I'll be able to pick up a T1i for that price. The Rebel XS is down to $540 now and you can get a refurb Nikon D40 for a ridiculous $360.

At these prices, there is no reason for anyone serious about photography to buy a high-end compact over an entry-level DSLR. DLSR image quality is vastly better, interchangeable lenses an important tool, and being able to work with RAW images is a must. Once you've used one, there'll be no going back.