The Photo Landscape, 2013
Over the course of 2013, the photographic-technology landscape has certainly held its fair share of innovations, updates, new releases, and refinements, with manufacturers pushing to meet certain contemporary image-making goals as well as working to draft the blueprint of what to expect in subsequent years.
Beyond the expected updates to camera and lens lines, new features and imaging assets have made their way into a broader base of photographic tools, due to general desires to be able to produce the highest-quality imagery in the most efficient and effective manner. Until recently, the now commonplace ideas of full-frame sensors, robust mirrorless systems, faster lenses, and emphasis on compactness, portability, and convenience have just been far-fetched desires or scarcely seen gems. Throughout the course of 2013, though, many of these ideas have been integrated into some of the most exciting product announcements over the course of the year.
Big Sensor, Small Camera
Just as the megapixel race has started to subside, the newest hot topic in regard to overall imaging quality has been the size of the imaging sensor, and furthermore, the size of the camera body itself. Full-frame cameras are certainly not a new innovation, nor are APS-C-format cameras, but the desire to uphold these two sensor-size standards while decreasing the physical dimensions of the camera for greater portability has certainly become one of the most hot-button new developments over the past couple of years. At the forefront of this trend was Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, which could essentially be described as a veritable full-frame point-and-shoot in the absolute highest regard. Its combination of ultimate imaging capabilities, a high-performance fast prime lens, and compact, elegant styling made it one of the most prized announcements of late 2012. In 2013 this camera got a slight, albeit notable, update with the removal of the optical low-pass filter for higher overall sharpness: the Cyber-shot DSC RX1R.
The two possible restrictions of the RX1 and RX1R, although many do cherish these aspects, are their lack of a viewfinder and non-interchangeable-lens design. Sony has recently rendered this point of contention null through its introduction of both the a7 and a7R full-frame mirrorless digital cameras. These two cameras stand to be the most compact full-frame interchangeable-lens digital cameras currently available, due to their mirrorless design and use of Sony’s E lens mount, which has a short flange focal distance of just 18mm. Aside from making the overall design of these cameras highly compact, the use of this lens mount also enables nearly any lens to be mounted on these cameras through the use of optional third-party lens adapters.
Beyond Sony, several other companies are employing this strategy of incorporating larger sensors into smaller bodies, such as Canon’s incredibly tiny EOS Rebel SL1 DSLR, which features an 18MP APS-C-sized sensor in a body measuring just 4.6 x 3.6 x 2.7”; Nikon’s pocketable DX-format COOLPIX A, and the smallest Micro Four Thirds camera currently available, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1.
Another recent and increasingly available imaging innovation is the absence of a certain technology—the removal of a traditional optical low-pass, or anti-aliasing, filter. Until recently, most cameras would incorporate this filter just in front of the sensor plane in order to reduce the chances of moiré or false colors occurring in imagery due to a sensor’s inability to properly resolve fine details, most commonly seen when photographing dense or shimmering patterns. The filter slightly blurs the image prior to its reaching the sensor in order to break up this visual density and produce natural colors and smooth patterned textures—but at the cost of some image sharpness. As of late, however, sensor designs and processing algorithms have become more intricate in the handling of imagery and are now able to greatly diminish the chances of these artifacts occurring without the need for an optical low-pass filter. This is not to say that there is no chance of moiré occurring when photographing with a camera lacking an optical low-pass filter, but the likelihood is nowhere near as great as it was in the past.
Bringing this technology to the limelight was last year’s Nikon D800E, which still features an optical low-pass filter, but its effects are countered through the incorporation of optical glass filter substrates in between the low-pass filter substrates, in order to negate its blurring tendencies. Nikon has followed this path with the development of their D7100 and D5300 DSLRs, neither of which incorporates an optical low-pass filter.
Other cameras and technologies handled removal of the optical low-pass filter in other ways, such as Fujifilm’s development of their X-Trans sensor design. First seen in the X-Pro1, this sensor design has been carried over and is still featured in most of their X-series cameras, including 2013’s X100S, X20, X-M1 and, most recently, the X-E2 and XQ1. The X-Trans sensor design utilizes a unique randomized pixel array, versus a more common Bayer array, in order to simulate the randomized grain structure of film and develop sharp, high-quality imagery that is void of moiré at the sensor level.
Pentax has also developed a unique method for handling moiré and false colors through the incorporation of a user-selectable anti-aliasing filter effect. The K-3 DSLR is the first camera that enables the user to choose whether or not he or she would like the benefits of an anti-aliasing filter or the additional sharpness provided without the use of it. In short, the K-3 does not incorporate a filter at all in its design. It does, however, have a unique feature that simulates the effect of an optical low-pass filter by microscopically vibrating the sensor itself, akin to the dust-reduction mechanism used in most DSLRs, in order to produce the same results of an optical filter.
Bridging the Autofocus Gap
While much of this year’s focus on camera innovations has been on pure image quality, there have also been several refinements to other, somewhat more overlooked technologies; namely, autofocus systems. There is no doubt that most photographers benefit from a fast and precise autofocusing system, and each year it is expected that an AF system’s improvements might fall in line with adding additional focus points or simply speeding up the way it performs. With the introduction of the Canon EOS 70D, though, its autofocus system was almost completely rewritten to function faster, more precisely, and smoother than past iterations, in order to benefit a contemporary image-making workflow that includes both still and video shooting. This new system, titled Dual Pixel CMOS AF, is a live view focusing method that utilizes two separate photodiodes within each pixel to provide a broad and dense network of phase-detection-gathering elements to help reduce focus hunting for faster, more direct control of focus placement. This new system functions similar to the way a camcorder acquires focus and is especially notable in regard to how it can perform rack-focusing techniques when used in combination with the Touch AF feature afforded by the touchscreen monitor.
Another camera featuring an innovative and improved focusing mechanism is the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which is Olympus’s new flagship mirrorless Micro Four Thirds digital camera that utilizes their FAST dual phase- and contrast-detection focusing system to function quickly and precisely. By employing traditionally DSLR-only phase-detection focusing, sharp focus can be acquired at DSLR speeds, yet still utilizes the contrast-detection method used in all mirrorless designs to maintain critical sharpness across the entire image plane. Similarly, the Fujifilm X-E2 employs their Intelligent Hybrid AF system, which also uses both focusing methods, to acquire focus in as little as 0.08 seconds. The X-E2 also features two notable manual focusing aids—Digital Split Image technology and Focus Highlight Peaking—to better serve focusing manually.
Another relatively new technology that continued to progress throughout the course of 2013 was the integration and refinement of built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, which has seemed to make its way into many of the most notable camera releases of the year. Certainly many of the frontrunners in this regard come from Samsung, and most notably their Galaxy NX mirrorless digital camera. This Android-based interchangeable-lens camera not only supports wireless sharing over Wi-Fi, but also features on 3G/4G LTE mobile connectivity to enable direct sharing of imagery straight from the camera, without the need of an additional mobile device.
Beside the hyper-connectivity of the Galaxy NX, the simple fact that more cameras are becoming imbued with Wi-Fi connectivity stands to further prove that instant image sharing is a feature that is here to stay, and is increasingly becoming more regular and expected. Aside from the sharing of photos and movies from these enabled cameras, wireless capabilities also tend to lend further functional benefits, including remote shutter-release capabilities, remote live view monitoring, and geo-tagging possibilities by using location data taken from a linked mobile device.
Beside these trends and technologies that are becoming increasingly popular in many cameras, there was also a fair share of unique introductions throughout the year that defy current generalization.
The Nikon 1 AW1 was recently announced and holds the distinction of being the first truly rugged interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera, and has a waterproof rating of 49.2’, a shockproof rating of 6.6’, and can withstand temperatures as low as 14°F. The camera was announced alongside two dedicated 1 NIKKOR AW lenses, which both serve to maintain the durable features of the camera itself.
Sony released two of the most unique digital cameras ever with their introduction of the DSC-QX10 and DSC-QX100 digital camera modules. These lens-shaped cameras have been designed to work in direct tandem with a smartphone—they feature a clip-on mount design and no graphical user interface, allowing the user to use his or her phone as the means of control. These cameras play into the "connected" mentality, but do so in truly out-of-the-box fashion.
Also new from Sony is their more typically styled Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, which slips in between the RX1/R and RX100/II as the middle-grade high-performance point-and-shoot camera. This camera features the same 20.2MP 1” Exmor R CMOS sensor as the RX100 II but has a more ergonomically shaped body and a truly stunning 8.3x optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens, which provides a 35mm equivalent focal-length range of 24-200mm and has a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture.
Announced just at the beginning of the year, the Canon PowerShot N still stands as one of the more distinguishable point-and-shoots available. Its square profile incorporates a tilting LCD touchscreen to better serve shooting from high and low angles and a dual ring-based control system, which surrounds the lens, serves as the main means for releasing the shutter and adjusting the zoom position. Built-in Wi-Fi, a dedicated Mobile Device Connect Button, and an enhanced Creative Shot Mode make the N especially suitable for instantly sharing imagery to social networking sites and its compact size and intuitive operating controls make it an ideal carry-everywhere camera.
Panasonic’s GX7 Micro Four Thirds digital camera serves as one of the most well thought-out cameras of the year through its incorporation of some of the most frequently desired assets for a camera, all housed in a single, compact body. It features a bright, high-resolution camcorder-style tilting electronic viewfinder, a tilting touchscreen LCD monitor, in-body MEGA O.I.S. image stabilization, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC support, and a robust magnesium-alloy body. All of these features work in concert to provide a truly notable all-around image-making device.
Finally, one of the newest cameras, and also certainly unique in many regards, is the Nikon Df DSLR. Resembling the look and feel of former Nikon F-series 35mm film cameras, the Df is a stills-only, full-frame DSLR that, as Nikon puts it, is designed for “pure photography.” Compared to the now commonplace button-and-menu style of settings navigation, the Df reverts to the halcyon days of analog dials and mechanical methods for changing shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity, exposure mode, and release mode.
Throughout the course of the year, Zeiss released some of the most interesting lenses for a host of different camera systems and types. Beginning with their foray into mirrorless lenses, they created a new system of lenses, along with an ornithologically oriented naming scheme, the Zeiss Touit. Beginning with two fast prime lenses, the Touit 12mm f/2.8 and the Touit 32mm f/1.8, these lenses are available for both the Fujifilm X-mount and the Sony E-mount. These lenses are designed specifically for APS-C format sensors, and provide 18mm and 48mm equivalent focal lengths, respectively, so even though there are E-mount versions available, they will not cover the full-frame E-mount a7 and a7R cameras unless they're set to APS-C crop mode. These optically refined lenses are of the first Zeiss-branded autofocus-enabled lenses, and as such, blend their history of high-quality lens design with fast, modern performance.
Another release with great impact from Zeiss was their first SLR lens to also carry an avian alias, the Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO Distagon T*, which is available for Canon EF and Nikon F mounts. This lens has been specifically designed for high-resolution full-frame cameras and features one of the most highly refined optical designs available today. It is capable of producing imagery with virtually no chromatic or spherical aberrations or color fringing as well as maintained edge-to-edge sharpness and illumination. When all combined, this lens is poised to simulate the look of medium format imagery, even with a sensor half the size of a medium format digital back.
Finally, Zeiss has also designed, in collaboration with Sony, three lenses for the new full-frame E-mount a7 and a7R cameras. The Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA is the widest of the three, and is a standard wide-angle prime featuring three double-sided aspherical elements and an internal focusing mechanism. The other prime is the normal-length Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, which features a bright f/1.8 maximum aperture for excellent control over the plane of focus. Lastly, the Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS is a standard zoom lens that features Optical SteadyShot image stabilization as well as one extra-low dispersion element and five aspherical elements. Each of these also incorporates Carl Zeiss T* anti-reflective coatings to prevent lens flare and ghosting and also have dust- and moisture-resistant construction for use in inclement conditions.
Making great strides in redeveloping much of their lens lineup, Sigma is currently in the process of structuring their system among three classifications as part of their new Global Vision: Contemporary, Art, and Sports. Each of these series will be designed for a specific purpose, with the Contemporary lenses typically being compact and portable zooms; the Art lenses being wide aperture primes and unique focal lengths; and the Sports lenses typically being telephoto and telephoto zoom focal lengths with advanced focusing technologies.
One of the more unique physical developments to come out of this restructuring process has been the Sigma USB Dock, which is available for Canon, Nikon, and Sigma mounts. This simple tool connects the Global Vision lenses directly to a computer for updating lenses' firmware as well as for applying a range of focus-control settings and, when connected to a Sport series lens, AF speed and Optical Stabilizer adjustments. Also unique to Sigma’s Global Vision lenses is the ability to have the lens mount changed on the lens in case you need to switch to a different camera system, helping to extend the effective lifespan of lenses as camera technologies continue to shift between different brands over time.
Among the lenses themselves, one of the most exciting that Sigma released this past year was the Art series 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM; an APS-C-format lens that features an incredibly bright f/1.8 constant maximum aperture and a 35mm equivalent focal length of 27-52.5mm (or 28.8-56mm on Canon APS-C sensors). Four aspherical elements and five SLD glass elements are incorporated into the optical design and an internal focusing mechanism and Hyper Sonic AF motor contribute to smooth and fast overall performance. It is available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony A, and Sigma SA mounts.
Nikon’s New Noct
Although Nikon released several new NIKKOR lenses over the course of the year, arguably the most interesting is the most recent announcement of the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G. Made to similar specifications of the famed Noct NIKKOR of the 1970s, this new 58mm f/1.4G is designed as a high-performance lens whose sole purpose is to deliver notable edge-to-edge image sharpness, clarity, and illumination throughout the aperture range with virtually no coma flare, chromatic aberration, or light falloff—making it ideally suited to use in low- and difficult lighting conditions.
Released in mid-May of this year, Canon introduced one of the most interesting telephoto zoom lenses in some time: the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens. With a built-in 1.4x optical extender that can be engaged using a simple lever and four-stop equivalent image stabilization, this is an ideal lens for wildlife and sports shooters looking for an incredibly versatile and high-performance lens to cover most long-range shooting applications. An Ultrasonic Motor AF system and internal focusing mechanism, along with three focus range limiters, Power Focus, and Focus Preset modes, focusing with this lens also proves to be intuitive and efficient to better suit working with quickly moving subjects.
Accessories and Supporting Roles
Beyond cameras and lenses, 2013 also saw the release of several other noteworthy photographic products to help round out an all-around workflow, from lighting, sharing, and carrying to effective post-production solutions, plus a pair of phone-related technologies that are sure to make headway into traditional camera designs.
The Lowel GL-1 Power LED is a pistol-shaped handheld light source that is an ideal tool for event or location-lighting scenarios where portability and lighting flexibility is paramount. Featuring 5 to 100% dimming control and a focusing head with an 8:1 focusing range, this light is incredibly flexible and can be used to illuminate a wide array of subject matter, from single portraits to group shots. It emits 3000K-balanced light, which can be cooled to daylight balance with the addition of an optional 82mm 80B screw-in filter, with a comparable output to that of a 100W tungsten-halogen lamp when focused at the same beam angle.
For enhancing most current Canon and Nikon DSLRs' wireless capabilities, the CamRanger Wireless Transmitter is a unique solution for controlling many aspects of the shooting process wirelessly as well as sharing images directly and instantly between the camera and an iOS or Android device or Mac or Windows computer. This tool functions by creating an ad hoc Wi-Fi network between the device and connected camera, which then enables remote control and live view monitoring from up to 150' away. Beyond the somewhat expected set of features, the CamRanger also extends control functionality by enabling intervalometer and bulb settings or time lapse or long exposures to be made; HDR, bracketing, and focus-stacking procedures to be performed; and robust control over most essential camera settings in both still and movie shooting modes.
Especially useful for the traveling working photographer, the Pelican U160 Urban Elite Half Case Camera Pack is a unique backpack in that it melds the rugged hard type of case Pelican is best known for with an ergonomic-styled backpack form factor. The front-loading built-in crush- and waterproof case can accommodate one DSLR with attached lens, a second lens, and a flash or other accessories, while the pack can be used to carry less fragile belongings. A tripod strap is available on the outside of the pack and an S-curved aluminum spine and padded shoulder straps accent the overall ergonomic design.
In regard to software updates, both DxO Optics and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom saw updates to their popular image editing and post-production tools. Optics Pro 9 has been upgraded to include the new PRIME technology for reducing the apparent noise within imagery through the use of complex de-noising algorithms based on hands-on testing and calibration of numerous cameras. Refinements also come in regard to greater control over colors and exposure, especially in regard to extending the apparent dynamic range of an image for more visually striking photographs. These added features, coupled with DxO Optics’ optical corrections capabilities, make this program a versatile addition to an existing workflow for fine-tuning the overall appearance of imagery.
Another recent update from DxO is their ViewPoint 2 program, which is a dedicated program, but can also function as a plug-in, to help correct distortion and perspective anomalies in imagery for a more natural-looking point of view. Utilizing a new 8-point mode, ViewPoint 2 is capable of correcting even the most complex converging lines regardless of their position within the frame. Different Optics Modules also help to solve issues relating to perspective distortion, and specifically help to refine distortions caused by certain lenses. More than 15,000 different presets can be applied, based on tested lenses, for truly personalized enhancements.
Similarly, the new version of Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5, also incorporates several updates to this versatile digital workflow program to help continue to round it out into an all-in-one imaging asset. A new Advanced Healing Brush utilizes content-aware filling methods to enable simple removal and replacement of different portions of a scene, and the Upright tool serves as a one-click solution for correcting skewed horizons or other crooked horizontal and vertical lines within a scene. Improved photo-book creation and the ability to produce video-based slideshows update the sharing aspects over previous versions of Lightroom, while a new Smart Previews function helps to expedite working with larger file sizes by generating smaller substitute files for editing, and then applying any edits or changes to the full-size images automatically.
With due respect to how smartphones are heavily infiltrating the point-and-shoot camera market, two smartphone innovations from this past year are furthering these device's image-making abilities to points beyond what many top-of-the-line dedicated cameras are capable of doing. With the introduction of Apple's iPhone 5s, a new flash design made its way into the phone to make skin tones appear more natural as well as color rendition of scenes. The True Tone flash comprises two separated LEDs, one white and one amber, which work together in varying ratios to produce a flash burst that renders subjects more naturally colored when compared to previous iterations of the built-in flash. This physical redesign of the flash works alongside newly developed software algorithms to determine the amount of each colored flash needed in order to produce the best-looking results.
Arguably at the peak of smartphone imaging, however, is the Nokia Lumia 1020, which incorporates PureView technology to downsize an oversampled image in order to achieve high image sharpness and sensitivity with lossless digital zoom capabilities. The imaging system incorporated into this phone utilizes a 41MP 2/3" Back Side Illuminated CMOS sensor and an all-aspherical, six-element, one-group Carl Zeiss lens with an equivalent focal length of 25mm and a maximum aperture of f/2.2. Since the resolution of this relatively large sensor is so high, digital zooming does not typically require interpolation, but rather is a process of cropping into the effective resolution in order to maintain a high level of sharpness. An optical image stabilization system is also integrated into the imaging unit's design in order to minimize the appearance of camera shake. Besides still images, the Lumia 1020 is also capable of recording full HD 1080p video with 4x lossless digital zoom.