Snap, Bang, Wallop

If you think that The Technofile has been dominated by cameras of late, guess what…here’s a feature about cameras…What can I tell you, Photokina, the world’s biggest photography trade show has just finished, as a result of which there has been a deluge of product announcements in recent weeks.

First Sony announced the long awaited Alpha 900, their first full frame (35.9mm x 24mm) DSLR. Priced to match Nikon’s lauded D700, but offering twice the resolution (24.6 mega pixels), it boasts 100% viewfinder coverage, exchangeable viewfinder screens, 2.5-4 stops of image stabilisation built into the magnesium alloy body, sensor cleaning, ISO equivalence expandable to 100-6400, a maximum shooting rate of 5 frames per second (for 100 frames) and an expanded range of Carl Zeiss lenses. It also offers a couple of innovations, the first being in camera HDR creation using auto bracketing and the second being an intelligent preview mode that allows you to use the 3inch 921,000 dot LCD screen at the back of the camera to preview the effects of settings such as white balance and exposure compensation before taking a picture. Offering these features at this price will undoubtedly make it a prosumer hit.

Sony Alpha 900 previewed in The technofile

Next came Nikon’s announcement of the D90 (the replacement for the D80). Billed as the world’s first DSLR to offer HD video recording (albeit at 720p, with mono sound recording through a built in mic), it was also the World’s only DSLR to offer HD video recording…for about 5 minutes…until Canon finally announced the long awaited successor to the EOS 5D, the somewhat predictably named, EOS 5D Mark II.

Nikon D90 previewed in The technofile

Three years ago, when the original 5D was released, it marked a milestone in digital imaging, as the first (relatively affordable) full frame 35mm DSLR and with everyone else sticking to smaller sensors, it was, for a long time, unassailable. Then, a bit over a year ago, Nikon raised the bar considerably, with their first ‘full frame’ offering (give or take 0.1 of a millimetre), the D3.

Although the images produced by the two cameras were broadly comparable (at low ISOs), the D3s spec sheet, which included top ISO equivalence of 25,000 and live view, made the 5D look dated. But it was also a fair bit more expensive than the 5D, so, for their next trick, Nikon released the D700, which offered almost exactly the same spec, plus the sensor cleaning that the D3 lacked, for a grand less, making it only marginally more expensive than the 5D.

However, Canon’s response, the 5D Mark II, seems to be the sum total of almost everything Nikon’s D700 has to offer and more. Firstly its sensor is a true 24mm x 36mm (the exact size of a 35mm frame, as opposed to the 24mm x 35.9mm sensor in the D3/D700). Secondly, at 21.1 mega pixels, it offers just over 75% more resolution than the D3/D700. Thirdly its ISO equivalence range of 100-6400 (expandable to 50, 12,500 & 25,000) is slightly wider than the D3/D700 (making it the widest ISO equivalence range currently available). Fourthly, its vastly improved 920,000 dot 3 inch LCD screen now offers the same resolution as the D3/D700’s. Fifthly, it offers sensor cleaning (like the D700, but unlike the D3). Sixthly, it offers Live view. Seventhly (seventhly?) its viewfinder, which offers 98% coverage, falls in between the D3 and the D700. Eighthly, it offers better weather sealing than the 5D, improved sensor cleaning and Canon’s new DIGIC 4 image processor. Finally, it offers true HD video recording of 1920 x 1080 progressive (with a stereo audio input).

Canon 5D Mark II previewed in The technofile

The one downside is that this video recording is at 30 Frames Per Second, which is fine if you want to record video for the US market or YouTube, but of limited use for everything and everywhere else. Since video recording has, apparently, been included at the request of photojournalists, hopefully Canon will realise there is a need for switchable frame rates and, at the very least, include 25p (and ideally 24p too). Certainly there are rumours circulating that a firmware update may add this functionality, but since this is not a rumour site, I cannot comment any further.

Of course the big question is can a sensor with 75% more pixels than the one in the D3/D700 match (or, dare I say it beat) the D3/D700’s legendary low light performance? If the answer is yes, then Cannon are bound to have a mega hit on their hands.

The other big question is whether the almost simultaneous release of the D90 & 5D Mark II spells the start of convergence between stills and video cameras. The answer appears to be a resounding yes, especially if Jim Jannard, of Red, has anything to do with it. In the two and a half minutes between the news of the D90 and 5D Mark II, he subtly announced that next year, Red would release a convergence product that would leave Nikon and Canon standing. Well you know what they say, if anyone can…Red can…

But although, as Jannard pointed out, Red have lots of experience in the sensor and CODEC departments, they have less than none in the autofocus department, or many of the other departments necessary for making the kind of SLRs that have kept Canon and Nikon at the top of the tree for decades. Not even Sony, who have considerably more experience of sensor design than Red and who are key players in professional video camera market, could produce an SLR single handedly. Instead, as we all know, they had to buy Konica Minolta to pull that one off. So that’s pretty bold talk from JJ…But bring it on I say!

And if this wasn’t enough, Leica, who have yet to bring a full frame sensor camera to market, shocked everyone by announcing their S-System. Due to Launch next summer, it offers a 37.5 Mega Pixel 30mm x 45mm Kodak made CCD, in a 35mm format ‘all weather’ metal body said to be smaller than Nikon’s and Canon’s current ‘top-end’ DSLRs. Built from the ground up, around this sensor, it houses a low power ‘MAESTRO’ processor, made by Fujitsu, that Leica claim is twice as fast as anything in current medium format backs (though whether that’s still the case nine months from now remains to be seen). A frame rate faster than any other medium format digital camera is also claimed. But perhaps the most interesting and innovative thing about this camera is that it will offer a dual shutter system consisting of a focal plane shutter in the camera and leaf shutters in (at least some of) the brand new range of lenses designed as part of the system. The benefits of this world first include true flash sync at all shutter speeds. As for the price…it’s Leica…if you need to ask…

Leica S System previewed in The technofile

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Nikon announced their new top of the range 13.5 million pixel Coolpix P6000 compact, which very sensibly offers the ability to geotag images automatically via a built in GPS, but which very unsensibly and rather controversially, eschews Mac support in favour of some bizarre licensing agreement with Microsoft. Next Canon announced their replacement for the G9, the somewhat predictably named G10 (what, you were expecting it to be called the G9 Mark II?), which packs 14.7 mega pixels, a DIGIC 4 processor, optical image stabilisation, a 24-140mm (equivalent) lens, RAW shooting and, very sensibly, an ISO dial but sadly no geotagging, into compact body more expensive than some DSLRs. Then Sigma announced their new DP2 compact, which contains the same TRUE II image processing chip and Foveon X3 APS-C sized sensor found in their simultaneously announced SD15 DSLR, making it the biggest sensor currently available in any compact.

Sigma DP2 previewed in The technofile

While some of these cameras are hitting the streets as you read this, others are unlikely to be available much before the end of this year and in some cases well into next year. But with Canon, Nikon and Sony all finally competing in the full frame market; Canon, Nikon and Sigma going head to head in the ‘pro’ compact arena; Xmas looming large and a world recession looming even larger, next year is bound to be an interesting time to buy a camera.

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