Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Science of Photography -- Part Ten

In the last episode I said I would cover next the internal, “micro” story of photo sensors. But, on the way to writing that story, I got side tracked by some actual cameras. One is a camera I own and use all the time, the Canon G12. It is the twelfeth in a long line of evolution of a powerful, “more than” point-and-shoot camera, and a camera that I often carry in my pocket or take on trips -- like this one.

I knew Canon had updated the model with the announcement of the new Canon G1X. But a lot changed with the G1X. In many ways, it is a new camera and much closer to what many of us wanted, a small camera that was equivalent to a larger, heavier, and bulkier DSLR, an alternative that didn’t give up much in terms of image quality.

Of course, this series of cameras do not have removable lenses, and there are other small, often called “mirror-less” cameras that match the quality of a DSLR. My Olympus PEN for one example and the new Nikon 1 cameras for another. But I think a little focus  (no pun intended) on the journey Canon has taken starting with the G7 in 2006 is worth examining.

So let’s dig into the technical data sheets and consider these excellent examples of the camera manufacturing ability of Canon.

The G10 was a 14.7MP camera announced by Canon in 2008. Unlike most small digital cameras, the G series has an optical viewfinder and you can hold it up to your eye to frame a picture, and don’t have to try to see the subject on a washed out LCD screen in daylight. For that reason alone, I wanted one. The 28mm lens with x5 zoom and the Charge Coupled sensor helped this camera take photographs head and shoulders above the average compact camera output.

The announcement of the G11 the next year was shocking in the fact that the sensor density was reduced from 14.7MP to 10MP. Maybe the hype was over and camera manufacturers were no longer jumping on the “more pixels is better” bandwagon? As I’ve stated before, the difference between 10 and 15 MP is not that great, and better camera design and the larger sensors on the lower MP implementation could actually produce better photographs.

Reviews of the G11 and the follow-on G12 verified that. People were still unhappy that there was no interchangeable lens, but I thought that was an advantage. The more lenses available, the more lenses I buy. So this was a budget friendly design for me. I purchased a G12 a few years back. It's a very serious camera with image stabilization, full manual control of shutter speed, f/stop, and ISO with external knob controls, RAW format, and most other features you get with DSLR cameras -- yet packaged in a relatively small case that fits in the pocket -- assuming you have a large enough pocket.

With my G12 getting a little old, after all, I’d had it for almost two years, I eagerly awaited the G13. Canon didn’t disappoint, although it is called the G1X. Maybe 13 is an unlucky number. Still no removable lens, but a complete redesign of the image system. Gone is the CCD sensor in favor of a CMOS sensor. And, the BIGGEST news, the new sensor is a lot larger than the old 1/1.7” (5.7mm x 7.6mm) sensor in the older models. It is, in fact, six times bigger! This new camera has a sensor 14mm x 18.7mm. That’s nearly as big as the sensor in my Nikon D7000 (15.6mm x 23.6mm). (The six times larger compares area of the sensors.)

The price also jumped appreciably. The G12 was around $500. The new model is $800. The pixel count is back to 14.1MP, but that will yield a larger pixel pitch on the much larger sensor than the 10MP on the GS12. So that is good.

One thing that separates all of the G series cameras from other simple photo devices is the external control knobs with adjustment of shutter, f/stop, and ISO. This is coupled with P, T, A, and M control modes just like the big boys, but lacking the big boy’s mirror and prism, it is one heck of a lot smaller and lighter. It has a hot shoe for flash and other attachments and EV adjustment controls as well as the ability to take "bracketed" pictures for HDR processing. The perfect companion to a DSLR for when you want the pocket camera convenience of a point-and-shoot combined with a real view finder for daylight framing and an exquisite optical and sensor system that can shoot with the big boys. It isn’t so compact that it will fit in your shirt pocket. It is about the size of the old 35mm viewfinder cameras, but that does stow away in a coat pocket or -- if you are fashion competent to wear cargo pants ... me? Nope. No cargo pants. Now where were we?

Oh, yes. Will I trade in my trusty G12 for a G1X? Or, even better, buy the new kid on the block and keep old reliable too? Only time and the size of my next social security check will determine that. Besides, I’ve got another pretty in my viewfinder.

This one does have removable lenses. It is the new Nikon 1 series. It comes in two flavors: simple and fancy. The Nikon model J1 at around $600 and the slightly better V1 at around $800-900. Since these are interchangeable lens cameras, the total cost depends on how many lenses you buy. There are four lenses, some primary and some zoom, designed for this new camera body.

The controls are less traditional than the G12 or G1X. That is a complaint by some. They lack an optical viewfinder, but do have an electronic viewfinder available and that is just as good.

Both the Canon G series and the Nikon 1 series are also serious contenders in the video arena. Both leading manufacturers know how important video performance is in this marketplace and the ability to have adjustable focus lenses and play with depth of field make these cameras and DSLRs powerful video recording tools being used more and more for these features. With video issues such as continuous autofocus and fast autofocus and autofocus motors that don’t drown out the audio are all key features these two cameras posses.

The Nikon 1 has a disappointingly small sensor in a new size that Nikon calls CX to go with their DX and full size FX family. CX sensors are 8.8mm x 13.2mm and an adequate 10MP. This new sensor size is just slightly bigger than the 4/3" sensor used in other popular mirror-less cameras from Panasonic (Lumix) and Olympus, and it is bigger than the G series lenses that Canon used before the new G1X model.

If you look at the entire Nikon 1 product line you’ll find cameras colored pink and red and white and silver, in addition to the professional look of black. The wealth of colors hints that this camera is intended for casual photographers with large budgets, but a lot of the  design fits the needs of serious photographers too.

Features such as the powerful video capability including a very fast shutter video mode perfect for amazing slow motion video production, the so-called “Smart Photo Selector” which lets people control the camera without required reading of my entire thesis on shutter speed and f/stop and depth of field and yadda-yadda. There’s even a feature that lets you snap a still in the middle of a video shoot. No more video frame capture in the post processing, just click the still while doing video.

The electronic shutter and the previously mentioned quiet focus motor all fit this video lifestyle. Add a wireless memory card and the shooter on the go would find this a very useful and powerful camera for the Facebook age. A simple GPS adapter can be added so the pictures can be uploaded, categorized and labeled for Foursquare presence. This is the camera for the next decade.

So what does “yours truly” plan to do. Well, barring winning the lottery, I suppose I have to decide which of these two new beauties to purchase. Or I could even make do with what I have now ... nahhh. I lean toward the maturity of the latest Canon offering, but also like the interchangeable lens feature of the Nikon.

I always choose Canon for small cameras and Nikon for large ... more a statement of my current ecosystem of lenses and accessories such as flash than a comment on which is better. The last quality mirror-less camera I bought is a bit of a disappointment. The Olympus takes good pictures for a small camera, but the autofocus is very slow and unwieldily. I mostly use it with manual focus.

There’s always eBay or Craig’s List. Maybe if I unload some of my current iron, I could buy some nice shiny new aluminum and plastic. Anyone want to make me an offer?

I’m very pleased with my G12. But, as I said, I do like interchangeable lenses. Oh, what the heck, I’ll just have to buy them both. Maybe you could help by sending me a little donation. You’ve been reading my articles, call it a subscription fee. That’s right folks, the first twelve people to call in their donation will receive a hand written thank you note from me, my wife, and my heirs. Keep reading to find out which one (or both) that I buy. Or, if Linda has anything to say about it, which camera I decide I would like to buy if only she would let me. Wait, I’ll buy it for her ... for Valentines ... now that’s a plan. But I’m not getting the pink one! No sirreee!!

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