2008 - A Dynamic Year for Digital SLR Design
Continuing our discussion of the year's most interesting lenses, let's revisit those exciting announcements as they pertain to digital SLRs. In 2008 we had PMA, Photokina and PhotoPlus - the trifecta of photographic expositions. These shows brought forth a plethora of delectable tools for both the serious and budding photographer. The following overview is in reverse-alphabetical order (as a change) so we begin with Sony.
Sony has cemented itself in a solid third place among the top SLR manufacturers – the release of four cameras this year helped quite a bit. For novices, the A200 is a 10.2 megapixel offering for the entry-level marketplace featuring an image stabilized CCD sensor, 3 fps shooting speed and a 2.7" rear screen - all big improvements over the A100.
The A300 & A350 were simultaneously announced and are pretty much the same camera with a couple of notable exceptions. They both share the same live view capable sensor enhanced with a "quick AF View" that provides faster live view focusing speed. It does so by incorporating two focusing sensors into the camera so there is no focusing delay when the mirror is raised. Differences between the models include a 10.2 megapixel sensor in the A300 and a 14.2 in the A350. Furthermore, the A350 captures at 2.5 fps while the A300 does 3 fps. Both cameras are excellent choices for mid-level photographers seeking a full optical system with a range of available accessories.
Sony's new flagship, the A900 didn't surprise anyone when it came out; they had announced its development and displayed a prototype more than a year earlier. The 24.6 megapixel powerhouse gets Sony into the current "full-frame club" who's membership for quite some time only consisted of Canon. Beyond the hefty CMOS sensor, the A900 stays consistent with the Sony line by having image stabilization on the sensor; but branches upwards with a 100% viewfinder, 5 fps shooting speed, adjustable dynamic range, HDMI output, interchangeable focusing screens and a magnesium alloy body with weatherproofing. This camera was designed to compete with the big boys. With an ever-growing library of pro-level Carl Zeiss lenses in Sony mount, the A900 gives users of the A200, A300 and A350, something to grow into.
The Sigma Corporation has shown a strong commitment to the Foveon sensor by purchasing the chip developer. This is good news following the recent passing of Richard Merrill, co-inventor of the Foveon chip. This move will ensure that the Foveon design has a stable future in the photographic marketplace. For those who prefer the results from a tri-layer sensor not following the standard Bayer pattern, Sigma's latest Foveon X3-based SLR is this year's SD15. It is a 14 megapixel camera designed for advanced amateurs or aspiring professionals who seek a unique color palette to express their vision. The Foveon sensor differs from the rest by capturing all three primary colors at each photosite as opposed to CCD and CMOS chips that record one color at a time and blend the colors during processing. The X3 sensor is backed by a faster processing engine, and a large 3" LCD screen. Another change is that the camera will now utilize SD cards.
Continuing a line of SLRs via a partnership with Pentax, this year Samsung unveiled the 15.1 megapixel GX-20. Not surprisingly it is similar to the Pentax K20D discussed later on in this article. So to bypass the redundancy, let's mention the differing points beyond the name printed on the body. The interface and button somewhat design differ between the two, so it may have a different tactile response. Also, the camera's menu and accompanying software, including a RAW conversion application, are vastly different than the Pentax version. Its most attractive point is that the GX-20 is accompanied by a series of Schneider-designed lenses that may be utilized in addition to the Pentax K-mount library.
This year, two is the magic number for Pentax. There has been a change in the line-up with the release of the K2000, K20D, and K200D. The digit update was much more than a nomenclature tweak, these cameras were given a major revamp. The 14.6 megapixel K20D introduced live-view and a large 2.7" LCD to the line, and the sensor was designed in conjunction with Samsung to have a broader dynamic range than its predecessor.
The K200D, fills in the hobbyist photographer's need with a 10.2 megapixel camera featuring CCD-shake dust reduction, and a wide dynamic range - two things the K100D was lacking. It is more durable than most cameras in its genre with a steel chassis and weather-seals aplenty.
For those upgrading from a point and shoot or who are using an SLR for the very first time, the K2000 gives a nod to the sorely-missed Pentax K1000 film camera so many veteran shooters took their first photography class with. Of course, only the name and target audience descend from the K1000 to the K2000 as a lot has changed since 1976. The K2000 is a simple and easy to use digital SLR that is a great starting point for entry into the substantial Pentax K-mount library.
The first production micro four-thirds camera, The Lumix G1, heralds a new dawn in digital photography and may create a new class of photographer. From 'ye olde' film days, shooters looking for compact system cameras had a limited number of choices: half-frame 35mm SLR, rangefinders, Minox, Minolta and other subminis, as well as the Pentax Auto 110 to name a few. They were offered to balance the need for professional control without the bulk or obtrusiveness of a 35mm or larger camera body. Now, the interchangeable lens Lumix G1 has the potential to fill this niche not currently being met by any other camera system. It is sure to be the first of a new generation of gap-bridging cameras.
Most of us are anxiously anticipating the arrival of Olympus' micro four-thirds camera, but their "full-sized" offerings should not be ignored. The E-520 and E-420 are refreshes to their entry-level compact SLR lineup. Inside the E-420 is a 10 megapixel, image-stabilized shifting sensor with autofocus live view that displays on a 2.7" LCD. The E-520 is the "big brother" with step-up features that provide more customization and function controls that an aspiring photographer can utilize. Tools like a wireless flash triggering system, RAW file format, Shadow Adjustment Technology (a dynamic range boost) add to the lifespan of this camera.
The E-30 is the Olympus answer to the growing advanced amateur, experimenting, travelling, sharing consumer market. With specs like a 12 megapixel dust-reduction sensor, sensor shift IS and 5 fps shooting speed, it's a great foundation for a semi-pro camera. The swiveling LCD gives travelers who need to conserve battery-life or are concerned with damage, the option to tuck-away the display when it is not wanted or needed. This is a often-requested feature most pro and amateur SLRs lack. For the creative-types, preset "art filters" aid in accomplishing more in-camera and reducing time spent retouching at a computer.
This year Nikon has been an exciting one for Nikonians. Three camera bodies have been introduced that have revolutionized their respective markets. The year began with the D60 for the entry-level user that upgraded the D40x with dust-reduction on the sensor, D-Lighting, and a pretty nifty stop-motion mode.
The year also brought out Nikon's answer to the "compact professional" camera market with the very popular D700. This body features a full-frame 12.1 megapixel sensor and shares most of the features of its big brother the D3. Improving on what the D3 lacks is an incorporated sensor cleaning mechanism which the D700 has along with a pop-up flash, live view, and an optional grip that boosts frame rate to a max of 8 fps over the stock 5 fps.
Lastly, the D90 was the biggest surprise, replacing the D80 as the "blogger"/advanced hobbyist camera. The most outstanding features of the 12.3 megapixel D90 are its much-discussed 720p HD video recording and an optional GPS receiver from Nikon. This is a camera that is designed to become the frequent traveler's favorite accessory.
The most recent medium format digital from Mamiya, the DL28, provides studio and commercial shooters with a relatively low-cost 28 megapixel capture device. Demanding pros will be more than satisfied with its 16-bit captures and 12-stop dynamic range. For those just getting their start in this level of photography, the Mamiya system offers a wide variety of current and past generation lenses and accessories to build from. As an added bonus, by using an optional lens mount adapter, Hasselblad V-series lenses can be utilized by this camera. One shouldn't disregard the 80mm f/2.8 Sekor AF lens that the kit comes with as it optimized for digital backs. At its core the DL28 is a 645 medium format camera that can accept both digital and film backs – a kind of versatility that is very useful in this era.
Leica overshadowed the M8.2 upgrade to the M8 digital rangefinder (that included the addition of a scratch-resistant sapphire coated display and quieter shutter) by announcing the S2. Some of you might remember its precursor, the S1 scan camera from 1998. Ten years later the S2 looks nothing like the steering-wheel inspired design of its predecessor, and takes on a more familiar and portable form factor. The S2 is built around a beefy 35mm-esque SLR chassis while housing a near-medium format sensor size. This is a drastic departure from the design of modern medium format film and digital bodies with modular backs.
The S2's sensor size is a bit more than double that of a full frame/35mm sensor, and measures 30x45mm while producing a 37.5 megapixel image. A dual-shutter system, popularized by the classic Anniversary Graphic film camera, allows for shutters to exist in either the lens (leaf) or on the focal plane. This facilitates the use of a high-speed flash sync when needed. Pretty heavy-duty device, but competitively priced for those who shoot with medium format digital systems.
The Hassy squad has issued a challenge to other systematic digital back builders with the latest incarnation, the H3DII-50 built around a 50 megapixel Kodak designed sensor. The 48x36mm sensor has twice the surface area of full-frame sensors and the camera body itself was built to accommodate the Hasselblad HTS 1.5 tilt/shift adapter. This adapter allows mounted lenses to move up/down or left/right in order to allow for perspective control. This is a feature that is missing from most medium format film/digital cameras. The H3DII-50's sensor itself is not just larger, but has received a few refinements that allow for faster capture and dump speeds while reducing power consumption when shooting off battery power. We have come a long way from using slow and ungainly tethered backs for this type of high-resolution digital image capture.
Rebel fans have two reasons to cheer; Canon released the XS and XSi to cater to the entry-level digital photographer. Both of these cameras are quite similar with a few important differences. The XS features a 10 megapixel, live view capable, self-cleaning CMOS sensor, a 7-point AF sensor, 2.5" display and 1.5/3.0 fps (RAW/JPEG) capture speed.
The XSi bumps up to 12 megapixels, 9 AF points, speed boost to 3.5 fps, a larger buffer for JPEG or RAW bursts, spot meter, and a larger 3" display. The XSi also features a 14-bit A/D converter that processes a wider range of colors with technology shared with the more professional Canon line.
Moving up Canon's line, the new 50D shares a lot of cool tech from Canon's current lineup. What is new from the old 40D is a 15 megapixel CMOS, 3" screen, live view with AF options, ISO boost to 12,800 and a HDMI out for tethered viewing on a large screen. Out of the box, the camera can zip through 6.3 fps and is much more durable with magnesium construction and water-resistant seals.
But the real excitement from Canon's releases this year came via the full-frame, 21.1 megapixel EOS 5D II that not only has live view, but piggybacking on that technology, it sports a 1080/30 fps HD video recording feature. Many filmmakers recording either on film or digital, are hampered by a smaller surface area at the film plane and a limited selection of glass. Thus capturing video with the 'good-bokeh' and varying perspectives many of us still-shooters take for granted is often hindered by the native format of the movie camera. The 5D has no such restriction and we can expect to see footage, published everywhere from YouTube to the movie theaters, that are more "photographic" and unlike much of what has been filmed before.
Overall, this was a really dramatic year for digital SLR releases. Many of the announced cameras broke new ground with technologies like HD video recording in the D90 and 5DII. Other releases were departures from what came before. An example of which is the Leica S2; no one could have predicted that the company that popularized 35mm film would ever consider any other format. Another format announced, micro four-thirds, promises to develop a whole new camera breed. So to sum up the year, I think that the term "radical change" easily applies and 2008 has certainly been a milestone in the ongoing development of digital photography.