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Archive for 2006

2006.12.27

San Jose City Hall DetailWould it not be great if photographs always came out level? Never see an accidentally tilted horizon again? Looking through a viewfinder, horizons do not always come out level. Holding a camera at arm’s length, chances are even lower. It can be very frustrating when an otherwise perfect photograph comes out tilted!

What can be done about tilted images?

  • Deleting the image is easiest.
  • Software correction is possible but dramatically reduces image quality.
  • A tripod with spirit-level works well but is limiting for speed and composition, not to mention cumbersome.
  • A hot-shoe spirit-level is more flexible but it is tedious to keep it straight while framing.

It would be great if the camera could do the work and automatically keep the picture level for the photographer. This would certainly be a fantastic feature. From the current state of technology, it may not be so difficult.

Remember CCD-shift stabilization? It works by moving the sensor to compensate for camera movements. When Pentax introduced the K10D, it declared that its Shake-Reduction system was superior because it compensates for rotational motion as well as horizontal and vertical motion. The Pentax K10D also has an orientation sensor to record the orientation of images.

With the capacity to slightly rotate the image sensor and detect the camera’s orientation, one could easily imagine an automatic image leveling system. If the K10D’s orientation sensor is precise enough, this may even be possible via a firmware upgrade. If it is not, then introducing a new orientation sensor is probably not too difficult.

Neocamera Blog Neocamera.com © Cybernium.

2006.12.27

There are two types of technology products: innovative products and me-too products. Unfortunately, most technology products seem to fall into the latter category. However, every now and then, someone comes up with a truly innovative product. In the world of gaming consoles, no one did this better than Nintendo with its sold-out-everywhere Wii console. Congradulations, Nintendo! Now, who will do this for digital cameras?

Digital cameras are certainly improving. Each generation is faster, has more capabilities and more resolution than the previous. However, these gradual improvements have not brought much innovation. Most digital cameras work and operate in very similar ways to their film ancestors. Not to say that there is something wrong with the way film cameras operate, but surely the nature of digital technology allows for something more…

Concordia University and Old Church

It seems that he market leaders, Canon and Nikon, are keeping with their working formula, perfecting their designs without leaving the paths that work well for them. On the other hand, the smaller players try to innovate more often, after all they have more room to grow and less to loose.

Lets recap some of the best innovations among digital cameras:

  • Olympus adds dust-reduction system to DSLR. By shaking the sensor at high speeds, dust is loosened. Years later, Sony, Canon and Pentax adopt similar designs in their 10 megapixels DSLR cameras.
  • Minolta uses a proximity sensor to determine when the photographer is using the viewfinder on their prosumer range of digital cameras. This feature is eventually brought over to their DSLR cameras and handed over to Sony who uses it in the Alpha A100. Shortly after, Canon introduces the Digital Rebel XTi with the same great feature. This sounds simple but once you use this feature it is hard to live without it.
  • Minolta invents CCD-shift stabilization, called Anti-Shake, as a method for image stabilization. This strike of genius separates the stabilization mechanism from the lens, giving birth to the first DSLR with built-in stabilization, the Konica-Minolta Maxxum 7D. Anti-shake stabilizes all lenses at no additional cost and uniquely brings stablization to prime lenses, fisheye lenses and ultra-wide lenses. This technology was adopted by Sony. Not far behind, Pentax introduced a similar system in its Pentax K100D and Pentax K10D.
  • Fifteen years after introducing hyper-program mode on their Z1 film camera, Pentax adds sensitivity-priority and combined shutter-aperture priority modes to their K10D. They also introduce digital white-balance preview which greatly facilitates selecting white-balance on a digital SLR.
  • Fujifilm invents the SuperCCD SR which captures more dynamic range by using two photosites per pixel. This technology makes its way to their Finepix S3 Pro SLR.
  • Fujifilm introduces their 4th generation SuperCCD HR in the Finepix F10. This sensor design dramatically produces less noise at high-ISO sensitivities than previously possible. Further development of this sensor leads to the Finepix F30, the first non-DSLR to produce usable full-resolution images at ISO 3200.
  • Casio creates a lens made of transparent ceramic to produces the thinnest camera of its time with an optical zoom, the Casio Exilim S100.
  • Minolta produces the first digital camera with folded-optics. This allows a non-protruding lens with optical zoom. This design is later copied by Sony, Nikon and Olympus. Later, Panasonic introduces the first camera with folded and extending optics, the Lumix DMC-TZ1.

Neocamera Blog Neocamera.com © Cybernium.

2006.12.18

It is easy to buy a tripod, so easy that did it a several times! Two times too many, to be precise. There are now three tripods in my closet although only one is needed. After an informal survey, I discovered this is often the case, particularly for amateurs perfecting their skills and learning to use new equipment.

Getting to this point is simple. Here is how:

  1. Underestimate the importance of a tripod, buy the cheapest one you can find.
  2. Underestimate the value of a tripod, buy a slightly more suitable tripod without going over an arbitray price-limit.
  3. Analyse every part of every tripod by every major manufacturer and come up with the ideal tripod which you cannot afford.
  4. Remove from consideration the tripods you cannot afford and redo the previous step.

Well, that is basically what I did. First, I got the cheapest tripod, they seemed all the same at the time. After I noticed that the cheapest tripod was frequently left at home because it was too heavy, I got the cheapest light-weight tripod. In the beginning, I ignored that the head moved while I tightened it. Then, after upgrading to a bigger camera, this occured more often and I got fed up. The lesson: I needed a light-weight tripod with a solid non-slip head.

[eminimall products=”Tripod”]

These are just two needs to consider. Since I often change cameras, I like doing the occasional panorama and I may eventually move to a heavier camera and lens combination, I decided to consider all those needs at once. The result, hopefully, is the last tripod I ever need, at least for a while!

My final choice was Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-645 carbon-fibre tripod legs, a Manfrotto 488RC4 ball-head and an Acratech leveling-base.There may be something better suited for you and even for me, but this combination suits my needs without being overly expensive.

The Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-645 is among the smallest tripods that can reach over 1.5m (5ft) and it is relatively light. Its folded length is 45cm (19″). This is a compromise over the ultra-light-weight carbon-fibre tripods by Gitzo which are much lighter but longer when folded. If weight was the most important feature and price was not a problem, then the Gitzo GT1540 would be preferable. Note that the Sherpa Pro CF-645 uses a lever-lock system rather than Gitzo’s screw-lock system. Personally, I find that lever-locks are easier and faster to operate. If gettng a tripod with screw-locks, beware of brands which do not use a twist-lock mechanism. With such tripods, you are required to unscrew the legs in a specific order.

The Manfrotto 488RC4 ball-head has separate ball and pan locks, can hold up to 8kg (18lbs) and features a wide quick-release plate with two built-in levels. The separate pan-lock allows the ball-head to be rotated without any other movements. This is only truly needed if the chosen legs do not allow center-column rotation. This ball-head is actually heavier and provides more support than I need. If it were not for price, I would have gotten the Manfrotto 468RC4 which is lighter and can support twice the weight. There was also the Manfrotto 486-series which is smaller but did not come with the RC4 quick-release plate which I prefered. Again, a compromise.

The final piece of the puzzle is the Acratech Leveling-Base. This device is optional but greatly aids leveling the ball-head for panoramas. The point to understand is that when a camera is level, as indicated by the spirit-level on the quick-release plate, but the tripod legs are not, then rotating the center-column or ball-head will not keep the camera level. A leveling-base inserts itself between the tripod legs and the ball-head where it can be used to level it. Once the ball-head is level, panoramic rotation keeps it level.

Velbon Sherpa Pro CF-645

Manfrotto 488RC4

Acratech Leveling Base

The total cost of this is just under 600 USD. Not bad for a carbon-fiber tripod with quality ball-head and leveling base! This versatile combination weighs about 2.5kg (5.5 lbs). This solution is suitable for panoramas but far from ideal. For improved panoramas, it is better to use an L-bracket so that the camera can be mounted vertically with its center above the rotation point of the ball-head. More sophisticated panoramas can be obtained using a special, but generally bulky, panoramic head.

Neocamera Blog Neocamera.com © Cybernium.

2006.12.05

The Best Cameras of 2006

For all those holiday shoppers looking to buy a new digital camera, Neocamera just posted its The Best Cameras of 2006 feature. These are cameras with outstanding image quality in their respective category.

For each category, there is a top pick based on photographic performance: the quality of its image, its speed of operation and its usability. Those are the most important things when judging a camera. However, not every camera, even one with superb image quality, fits the needs of everyone. That is what Neocamera is about, matching a camera to your needs.

With each top pick, there are alternate choices. These are all excellent (in green boxes) or good (in yellow boxes) cameras which provide features that the top pick does not have. The assumption is that it is not a camera’s features, but its performance, that determines its greatness. However, a camera’s features determine if it satisfies specific needs.

In the ultra-compact category, the Fuji Finepix F30 is complemented by a camera with a wide-angle lens, the Canon Powershot SD800, a waterproof camera, the Pentax Optio W10 and a camera with full manual controls, the HP Photosmart R967. The aternate choices are all great cameras, but we would no say that they are second or third best, they simply complement welll the F30’s feature set. If we had to pick a second best ultra-compact digital camera, we would probably pick the Fuji Finepix F10, but that camera does not bring anything significant compared to the F30.

One thing that readers may notice is the dominance of Fuji in the non-SLR categories. No, we are not sponsered by Fuji! Starting with the introduction of the Fuji Finepix F10, Fuji has made quite a comeback and produced a sensor, called SuperCCD HR, which gives outstanding image quality. It is a combination of technology and software which has given Fuji a lead in terms of image noise and high-ISO performance. Had we produced a list of top-cameras two years ago, Fuji would have been much less present. Other manufacturers, specially Canon, are closing the gap though.

The introduction of high-ISO sensitivities in small cameras is a welcome one. Increasing ISO limits allows more possibilities than increasing megapixels. More megapixels allow larger print sizes and more cropping, but higher ISO enables photography in places previously reserved for DSLR cameras. This is why we see more and more cameras with ISO sensitivities up to 1600 and beyond. The current champion of high-ISO for fixed-lens cameras is Fuji. In the DSLR world, Canon dominates with both cropped and full-frame sensors. Since every other DSLR, except for Olympus and Panasonic, uses Sony sensors, differences amount to noise-reduction algorithms.

Neocamera Blog Neocamera.com © Cybernium.

2006.11.25

One of the most common complaints about digital cameras is that they produce soft-looking images. While softness, or lack of sharpness, is somewhat subjective, most people can agree which of two images appears sharper on the medium on which they are presented. What most people do not realize is that the medium significantly affects perceived sharpness.

Park Tree

The number one factor that affects perceived sharpness is obviously visible size.The larger an image appears to our eyes, the less sharp it will appear. This has to do with both size and viewing distance. The close you stand to an image, the larger it appears. This is why looking at unscaled full-resolution images on a computer is frequently disappointing.The more megapixels a camera has, the larger its unscaled images appear on a set display. This explains why many people upgrading to a higher resolution digital camera report that images from the new camera are not as sharp.

Once the effect of size is understood, the natural tendency is to scale all images to the same size before comparing them. It turns out this is only a partial solution. The problem is that scaling always affects image sharpness but not all scaling affects image sharpness equally. This is generally not a problem if you are judging images on your final medium, since this is exactly how they will appear to their intended audience. Say you showcase your images on 9″x12″ prints, then judging the sharpness on such prints is fair, judging sharpness on a 9″x12″ display is not.

It turns out I do not have to write much more about this subject because Ken Rockwell already did a good job with his How to Fix Unsharp Images article. There are a few things worth adding though.

Modern displays either use VGA (D-SUB) or DVI connectors. According to the article linked above, pixel clocks do not need to be synchronized when using DVI cables. Actually, this is half-true because there are 2 types of DVI connections: DVI-A and DVI-D. The former actually passes an analog signal through a DVI cable. In that case, pixel clocks must be synchronized. That connection was introduced to ease the transition from D-SUB to DVI but frequently results in confusion as you can buy an analog-only display with a DVI input. Even if your display supports both, it may be the case that your graphic card only outputs analog. With DVI-D, a digital signal is used and there is no need to worry about pixel clocks.

While much more LCDs are being sold than CRTs, using the latter should be expanded upon since they are still very common. Even though CRTs are analog devices, they have a fixed grid of phosphors which produce the image we see. The distance between these phosphors is important and is called dot-pitch. Manufacturers which use Trinitron tubes measure dot-pitch as the horizontal distance between adjacent pixels. Other manufacturers measure the dot-pitch as the diagonal distance between pixels. To know if you have a Trinitron tube, look for 2 thin black lines that cross your display image near the top and bottom third of the monitor. This is easiest to see against a white background.

A CRT display reaches its optimal sharpness when its resolution is set so that pixels exactly match the positions of its phosphors. That is why knowing the dot-pitch is important. To determine the optimal resolution of your display, measure the diagonal, for regular tubes, or the width, for Trinitron tubes. Then, divide you measurement by the dot pitch. The result is roughly the optimal horizontal resolution. For example, lets say a Trinitron CRT measures 400mm in width and its has a 0.2mm dot-pitch. Dividing 400 by 0.2, we get 2000. This indicates that the optimal resolution is between 2048×1536 and 1920×1440. The result is not perfect because there is no 2000-wide resolution and part of the screen area may not be usable. If you use a CRT’s adjustment to scale the display accross its entire display area, the likelihood of distortion increases. In terms of sharpness and geometry, LCDs are perfect. Where they are generally weaker are color, contrast and black-level, though this is slowly changing.

[eminimall products=”Computer Monitors” ]

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