Monday, July 28, 2014

The Sony A7S Mark II Is Your Next Camera

The Sony A7S is a wonderful camera. Bodily, it has all of the same minor issues as the other A-series cameras, and the interface still has some... quirks... but the image quality is fantastic. Now that I've had a chance to man-handle one, I've come away incredibly impressed. It is obvious that after the disappointment of Sony ditching their APS-C cameras, they have gone whole-hog into their new strategic direction. This is a major development, a great camera, and bodes very well for Sony's future.

I'm excited because the A7S makes me believe that ISO performance matters again. I had recently declared that ISO no longer matters, and that is still true for almost everyone. For people with serious professional demands or artistic ambitions that go beyond pretty landscapes, the A7S opens new doors.

Now I See from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

The A7S also opens a door that should have never been closed in the first place. Neither the A7 nor the A7R had good autofocus. It was a real killer for such an expensive camera and may help to explain why the A7 can be had for less than $1300. Both sensors were very good in low light, but the sensor far outstripped the capabilities of the AF. The A7S goes much of the way toward fixing that. The AF is still nowhere near the Olympus E-M5 and E-M1, or the Panasonic GH4, but seems on par with what I remember from Fuji's newest cameras.

This is significant because the A7S is more worth its price than the A7R was. The R had that crazy-high-resolution sensor, but no lenses to take advantage of it. And when the ordinary A7, itself no slouch in the resolution department, can be easily found for a thousand dollars less, well, the A7R made no sense. The A7S makes sense... lots of sense.

And the video is awesome! I didn't have much of a chance to deal with it, but you don't need me for that. Just head over to EOSHD and read his rolling review of the camera. If that doesn't get you excited, I don't know what will.

So, after all of that, why did I title this with the A7S Mark II? Because you shouldn't buy the A7S. You should buy its sequel, which is probably only a year away. The biggest problem with the A7S's video is the abysmal rolling shutter. It's very noticeable whenever the camera moves. Believe me, I very much appreciate how hard it is for camera companies to fix that and I do not blame Sony for this. They wedged way more into a super-tiny body than I would have bet possible. Moreover, the rolling shutter is bad because Sony made the big advancement to do a full-pixel readout from the sensor during video mode.

What that means it that when the sensor data is being stored on the memory card, it doesn't skip lines as it moves down the rows of pixels on the sensor. Back in the day, bandwidth and processing power necessitated this, and the act of skipping lines causes issues like jaggy edges and weird patterns to appear. A full sensor readout is a big deal, Sony should be commended for managing it in such a small body, and it should be pointed out that no one else is doing this. Still, the camera is expensive and when rolling shutter is so bad, that's a serious concern.

In fairness, and if you really want the A7S, it comes with an APS-C mode that uses a crop from the sensor that is about the size of a Super-35 circle. This greatly helps reduce rolling shutter.

Goodbye Jello! Hello Sony A7S APS-C vs Full Frame. Also some 720p 120 FPS. from Ed David on Vimeo.

Still, you get a full-frame camera to use the full frame. Taking a crop is a very useful tool when you want it. When one is forced to use it to avoid a problem... it becomes a problem.

So for that reason, I think that the current A7S is something that you should hold off on buying. I have complete confidence that this one issue, the rolling shutter, will be at least alleviated enough to warrant a purchase in the future, though.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sigma Offers Try Before You Buy Program

Do you remember a number of years back, when Cinderella Man came out in theaters and wasn't doing very well? A large theater chain had such confidence in the movie that they offered viewers the ability to pay after viewing it, and would only have to pay if they liked it. The decision was made out of confidence, certainly, but also confusion. Why the hell wasn't the audience connecting with an excellent movie?

Poor Sigma finds itself in a similar situation. As esoteric camera equipment abounds, Sigma's perenial also-ran, the Foveon cameras, seem to be forgotten. And that's a bad thing! Are the Foveon cameras perfect, all-arounders? No. Not even close. They are slow, deliberate, and provide image quality that cannot be found anywhere else. They are utterly unique image-making tools. If you want to stand out, you should be using these cameras, and yet so few people are.

Sigma is obviously desperate to get photogs to take their Foveon cameras more seriously. They are offering a try-before-you-buy plan, where they will charge $999 to your credit card of choice and completely refund it if you send it back. Obviously, they're betting that you won't send it back because you love it so much, and for many photogs, that might happen.

I don't have the time to use my Sigma recently, since its ISO performance isn't terribly good. I can't take many shots indoors, and food photography requires studio lights. But in high-light and tripod scenarios, I love the Sigma. LOVE it.

My primary cameras are a Panasonic GX1, Canon EOS 50D, and Nokia 1020, but none of them offer what the Sigma has. I wouldn't trade them, but the mere fact that I would consider it should tell you something.

Go try it. You won't regret it.

How Did I Miss the A7S?

Was in a coma for the past month or so? It's the only way to explain that I was only recently made aware of the awesome Sony A7S. You know how I said that ISO performance no longer matters? Well, Sony didn't hear me and instead built a camera with the best low-light performance ever. This bad boy is nearing 4,000 on DxOMark's database. Four thousand!

Obviously, the tweaking that the sensor required to get that high required concessions. The dynamic range and color depth are both lower than the other two Sony A7 cameras, and lower than most other top-rated pieces of kit. But in this case, I don't think it matters. If you are buying this camera, you have very low-light situations in mind, and a bit of color and range is a fine trade for better night shots.

Sony is also progressing on the video front, making this the best video A7 camera yet. Rolling shutter is still dreadful, but if you won't be doing those kinds of shots, then it's not too much of a concern. That said, the rolling shutter is pretty bad. I would imagine that the heat coming from the sensor is the limiting factor. The A7 body is crazy-small, meaning that it can dissipate only so much heat.

In all ways, this is an exciting prospect that opens up new areas of image creation. If you are a journalist looking for night-time run-and-gun video shooting, we've found your camera. Because I love the GH4, but like Hammer, it can't touch this.

Very impressive.

Hey Sony A7S! Let's Rolling Shutter You Against Mr. Black Magic Pocket Camera BMPC from Ed David on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sony Drops Price of RX10 by over $300

An interesting addition to my article about the RX100M III. We now can see, without doubt, what competition can do. Sony's excellent RX10 (one of my favorite Sony products ever) wasn't exactly aggressively priced at $1299. There was a good reason for this: other camera companies weren't competing for shit. Sony was seemingly all alone in trying to deliver high quality P&S cameras.

Well, another company finally came along, the Panasonic FZ1000. It is likewise a very impressive product. It's made doubly impressive in that the lens is twice as long as the Sony, probably has superior video capabilities, and also costs $400 less.

No longer! Competition, I choose you! Sony has responded to the new Panny with a $301 price drop on the RX10, bringing it down to a $99 premium over the FZ1000. We will have to wait to see how the lenses compare and the cameras perform side by side to determine with the premium is worth it. It very well may be, since the f/2.8 lens on the Sony is a gem. Then again, if it proves to not be worth it, all Sony has done is let their arrogance shine through.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Apple One-Ups Its Final Cut X Failure; Completely Abandons Aperture

I don't own a Mac. I don't like Apple that much. In fact, I kinda' sorta' hate Apple. Not the Macolytes or iPhone fans or anything; I hate Apple itself.

One thing I don't hate, though, is competition. I love competition because it prevents companies from dragging progress down. When a large company dominates a market, it becomes difficult for smaller companies to succeed. Basically, the largest animal is eating all of the food that the smaller animals might use to grow. And since large companies are usually run by greedy nitwits, progress grinds to a halt.

Let's look at Adobe, another greedy company run by nitwits. They have released the near-universally hated Creative Cloud. With this, it is impossible to actually buy their software. You can only lease it. They are trying to say that it is intended to be beneficial to users, but everyone knows that this is a lie. It is intended to try to stop pirates... which it has failed to do. I can go pirate Adobe Photoshop CC right now.

So, as with so many (all?) attempts to stop piracy, all they have succeeded in doing is making life more difficult for their legitimate users.

You will notice a peculiar omission from their Creative Cloud, though:


Odd, don't you think? If Creative Cloud is so awesome for users, why isn't Adobe forcing Lightroom users into it? You can get it. In fact, if you go to Adobe's website and try to buy Lightroom, they only give you the option of ordering it in a monthly lease package with a minimum one-year commitment for $120.

But, and this is a huge but, I can still go to Amazon and buy it outright and for the rest of time for $135.

Why give me the option at all? I can no longer buy Photoshop, or Illustrator, or Premiere. Why is Lightroom exempt from this tyranny?

Because of competition, that's why. Unlike so many of the markets in which Adobe plays, the photo processing market has a large number of options, with all of them fantastic in their own ways. Capture One, Bibble, DxO, and the quite usable open source RawTherapee are all alternatives to Adobe's Lightroom. Moreover, Lightroom has seen more and faster development than all of their other programs. Competition has forced Adobe to work.

So it is with a heavy heart that I report that the competition in that market has grown to be too much for an old stand-by. Apple is leaving the professional photo processing market and pulling the plug on Aperture. This is a big problem for me because Adobe will use any excuse they can find to stop working, charge more, and screw its customers. And since Lightroom is my application of choice, I am on tenuous foundations. Adobe could suddenly decide to pull a Creative Cloud on Lightroom, and I would either be forced to tag along or make the troublesome transition to another program. Neither option is very nice.

So the loss of Aperture is bad for Aperture users, but it is also bad for Adobe users. Aperture users have had the rug pulled out entirely from underneath them, but now our rug is looking like it might move at any moment. We need constant, intense, brutal competition to keep these companies in place, and the loss of any player in the game is going to be felt by all involved. I am very sad that Aperture is gone.

Maybe it's time to start donating to RawTherapee.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sony RX100M III Is Impressive, But Was Anyone Expecting Anything Less?

The first reviews of the Sony RX100M III are out, and really, we didn't need them to reach a conclusion: The RX100M III is even better than its predecessors. It damn well better be considering the price increase. $800 is a lot of coin.

And that's the difficult part. Sony was not exactly being aggressive with the original RX100 at $650. It sold, like, ninety buhjillion copies. The RX100M II sold for $750, an even harder sell. It still sold well, but sold less than half of the first. Granted, some of this is because the first camera ate up a great deal of demand. Let's face it, there are only so many people willing to plunk down the better part of a grand on a small camera. That said, that should have made Sony even more aggressive in keeping the price the same or even lower. Do you see Apple increasing the price of the iPhone or iPad every year? No. And considering inflation, that means that today's $200 iPhone is cheaper than the $200 iPhone from 2007.

Basically, the price increase was stupid on Sony's part. But, well, Sony is stupid. Their camera division is smart, but I guarantee that after the monster success of the RX100 that higher-level executives jumped in and fucked everything up. The price increase was a decision that was almost undoubtedly made by executives outside of the camera division.

And those executives are obviously still in control, because here we are, with the eight-hundred-freaking-dollar RX100M III.

Let's withhold judgment, though. Is the new camera worth the price? It has that viewfinder that everyone wants, which is a genuine upgrade, but it loses the hot shoe from the last RX100 camera. Its lens is brighter but shorter, meaning that there is even less chance of getting any bokeh out of the small, 1" sensor. At the same time, it keeps the flash that no enthusiasts would ever use. And who the hell else is buying this thing save for enthusiasts?

Sony has thankfully made some progress with the sensor. I maintain that ISO performance has stopped being a serious concern for anyone with larger sensors, but on smaller sensors, it is still a huge concern. DxOMark shows that the sensors of the M II and M III are the same, but the photos themselves are not. Sony made definite progress in making the photos look less like P&S images. Nikon's inane 1-series cameras and the first RX100 looked like P&S images. Unbelievably fantastic P&S images, but still P&S. The RX100M II also seemed like this in some shots.

It may just be the processing, but the new RX100M III looks better than the M II. This is a big deal. Because while these cameras may never be useful in low-light, they could become genuine tools for high-light situations. And the lens on this bad boy is awesome. It is tack sharp. You could easily take landscape photos and architecture photos with this camera.

Aside from that, and that is arguably a big deal, there is little in the way of real changes to this camera. And for that honor, we pay $50 more over an already overprices camera? Sony's price increase may come from the fact that there is almost nothing in the way of competition out there, and the competition that exists is even more arrogant and stupid. The Canon G1X II is utterly obviated by even the first RX100. It is over-priced, under-powered, and under-featured. And it is of course housing one of Canon's famously-crap sensors.

Likewise, the Nikon Coolpix A was a $1,200 piece of shit that targeted the Fuji X100. No one bought it. Seriously, the RX100 stood more-or-less alone and pretty much still does. There are rumors that Fuji has a camera coming out, and Panasonic undoubtedly will have a camera with the sensor from the new FZ1000 in it, but those are all in the future. Right now, it's Sony or nobody.

What's especially disappointing is that the original RX100 was groundbreaking. It was stupid that it took camera companies that long to release the first large-sensor P&S (I'm not counting Sigma's Foveon cameras), but it was still groundbreaking. For the large price increase to the M III, I would want to see more groundbreaking work. More pro-level features, more options, more connections, more tools. This is basically just a better RX100, and for the price, I don't think that it's much worth it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Panasonic FZ1000 Is Genuinely Surprising

Bravo Panasonic. You've done Sony one better, and aside from the video-oriented GH series, that is a first.

The Panasonic FZ1000 is Panasonic's response to the phenomenal success that Sony has had with their 1-Inch sensor cameras, the RX100 and the RX10. It sports a 400mm lens, a rugged body, and all the doodads one would expect.

Before I go into all that, though, I want to again stress how shockingly dumb camera companies are. It was apparent to everyone that point-&-shoot cameras with small sensors were dead the moment that the iPhone came out. In 2007, camera phones weren't terribly good, but Nokia's line of N phones were already showing that they could be. I should know. I had the N93, N95, and an N86. I rarely wanted for a P&S when I had them.

As such, everyone with half a brain knew full well that to continue sales of P&S cameras, companies would have to start offering upgrades in the form of increased sensors, features, and capabilities. So, from the release of the Nokia N91 in 2005, it took Sony eight years to release the RX100. And that was worthy of praise!!!

I don't want to bash Sony too much, because at the very least they released the damned thing. The rest of the companies were doing less than shit. They were doing negative shit. That's a mathematical term. Its symbol is -S. Canon = -S. If Sony had not released the RX100, the FZ1000 would absolutely not exist.

But now that it does, it is a very good thing.

The FZ1000 is very different from the Sony. The sensors are the same size, but the Panasonic is noticeably larger. It's zoom range also extends to 400mm eqv while maintaining an F/4.0 at that length. For such a compact size, that's quite good. Obviously, we have lenses out there for APS-C and m4/3 that reach 400mm eqv, but their quality at that range is rather shite. If this camera can stay sharp, I think that Panasonic deserves a booyah. This is especially true considering the price: $900. That's precisely where newer, better P&S cameras should be. Pricey, but of course they're pricey; these are an upgrade from your iPhone.

Even if the camera softens up a bit on the far end, that extra range is a big differentiator from Sony. My biggest interest, though, is video. Panasonic admittedly has developed a good reputation for high-quality video in its camera offerings. The RX10 is already Sony's best video camera, so if Panasonic can bring something special, then it will be impressive indeed.

Noise performance on the sensor seems competitive, but that's unsurprising. Very few cameras are noticeably behind the curve when it comes to noise performance. I wrote a little while ago that ISO is no longer important, and with every new camera release, that is confirmed. Are there slight differences? Yes, but rarely large enough to be seen in actual situations.

That said, the 1" sensor still looks a point-&-shooty. I don't think that will ever change. That is, of course, only a concern for pro-sumer photogs. For anyone else, this will be so vastly superior to your old P&S or your cell phone as to be a breath of fresh air after living in Shanghai. And again, the price can't be beat.

This is progress. I really look forward to video from this camera. If they can produce something special, I know many a videographer who may pick one up.