Musings and news on photography and the natural world, capturing the sights, and preserving them for generations to come.

CES 2015 Report: A Photographer's Perspective, Continued

January 16, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

On with the show from CES 2105!  An unfortunate bit of memory card corruption on my Fuji XE-1 cost me some pics, so this post will have to do without.  On that note, I am looking forward to having reliable Wi-Fi built into all cameras in the near future, avoiding the need to use the kludgy, slow, and only sporadically reliable Eye-Fi SD card to transmit photos wirelessly.

Panasonic

Panasonic showed a product that while not new, had yet to be seen in the U.S., their CM1 Android Camera/Phone, with 1”-sensor and f/2.8 Leica-badged lens.  Upon its’ initial announcement (only for select European markets) in 2014, I was quite intrigued, as it looked to be just the sort of serious camera/phone mash up that I had been hoping would exist someday.

Panasonic got a lot right with the CM1, most importantly, the ergonomics and interface, which made it seamless to go from phone to camera (or from off to camera), and capture shots far more quickly than the cameras on most other smartphones.  The control ring around the lens was great for controlling aperture or shutter speed in manual exposure modes, and the shutter button had a nicely damped feel that reminded me of a premium camera, again, not a phone.

The custom camera app ran very smoothly and quickly, and would be quite familiar to those who have used Panasonic Lumix cameras in the past.  The only significant delays I experienced came when shooting bursts of RAW+JPEG, which did leave the camera app somewhat unresponsive for a few seconds at a time (though it was possible to return to the Android home screen and use other apps).

The Lumix CM1 is a success in terms of integrating a serious camera with a smartphone better than any of the other attempts I have handled (Samsung Galaxy Camera and Lumia 1020 come to mind), and doing it all in a rather svelte package that didn’t compromise phone functionality.  However, it was let down by Panasonic’s typically mediocre JPEG processing engine and lack of optical image stabilization, producing shots that side-by-side looked only marginally cleaner in low light than the smaller-sensor (1/2.3”) Galaxy Note 4.  I would think that processing RAW files from the CM1 would result in significantly better results, if my experience with past Lumix cameras is any indicator.

Given the popularity of large-screened phones like the aforementioned Note 4 and Apple iPhone 6 Plus, I’d like to see a future CM1-like device take advantage of the larger frame offered by such a size to address issues like the CM1’s trapped battery, and bring battery life in such a device up to the standards expected from smartphone contemporaries.  Also, the Note 4 and iPhone 6 Plus demonstrate the huge advantages of an optical stabilizer to image quality on a smartphone platform, and no future phone serious about its’ image quality should be without one.

I commend Panasonic for taking such a serious first stab at this segment, and hope they stick with it, refine the concept, and come up with the true photographer’s smartphone, one that doesn’t compromise on what we expect from a premium smartphone, nor a premium large-sensor compact camera.

I also took a quick look at the LX100 and GM5, two small cameras approaching the high-quality go-everywhere camera from different angles, but a similar Micro 4/3 sensor and electronic viewfinder.  The LX100 bears a fixed 24-75mm equivalent lens with a fast f/1.7-2.8 aperture, and a bevy of manual controls.  The GM5 has fewer manual control points, but gains an interchangeable lens mount, and an even thinner body.  Both have a small electronic viewfinder that will be welcome to mitigate camera shake and compose accurately in bright conditions.  Both cameras performed admirably for their size, but ultimately, I prefer having a bit more depth-of-field control and signal-to-noise ratio from an APS-C sensor, even if it means a slightly larger camera/system.

Sony

I stopped by Sony primarily to see how their new A7 II model had evolved from last year’s initial foray into full-frame mirrorless cameras.  While the new 5-axis image stabilizer in the A7 II worked just as impressively as the similar unit in the much smaller Olympus OM-D models, the body of the A7 II grew quite a bit in order to accommodate it.  Given the popularity of adapting manual focus lenses to the Sony E-Mount platform, I don’t doubt that this feature will be a major boon for many A7 shooters, and potentially worth upgrading for alone.

Otherwise, the camera primarily changed in terms of handling, both for better and worse.  I found the larger body and grip easier to handle, however the primary and secondary control dials for aperture and shutter speed were more difficult to turn, being further recessed into the body, which seems a potential nightmare for outdoor use with gloves.  I didn’t notice any significant difference in autofocus speed or image quality, the latter still being marred by Sony’s sub-par JPEG engine and lossy compression of “RAW” files.

Hopefully the popularity of the A7 series will spur other competitors to produce more compact, mirrorless full-frame cameras and reasonable sized lenses for them.  As much as I like the concept of the A7 series, Sony’s image processing, AF algorithms, shutter slap (on the 36MP A7R) and lack of compelling lenses make the system a non-starter for me.  But a small and light full-frame mirrorless system with high-quality, reasonable sized prime lenses is many a photographer’s dream, including my own, we just need someone to step up and do it optimally.

Wacom

Even if you don’t know the name, if you’ve ever used the pen/stylus on a tablet PC, Samsung Galaxy Note, or Microsoft Surface, you’ve likely used a Wacom product.  The biggest producer of precision pen-input computer devices hit CES with two major new products, a 27” QHD version of their flagship Cintiq graphics monitor, and the Companion 2, a Windows-powered graphics tablet that can double as a Cintiq or monitor for a standalone PC.

The Cintiq 27 QHD comes in both pen/touch and pen-only models, both sporting the same gorgeous 2560x1440 screen, and 2048-level pressure sensitive pen input layer.  This model also introduces a moveable, remote shortcut keyboard, that can be repositioned to suit each user’s needs, and up to 5 may be connected to one Cintiq simultaneously.  The Cintiq 27 QHD becomes the premier desktop graphics display for photographers and artists who demand the precision control of a Wacom pen input for retouching and creating, even if it demands a bit more of your desk space than the previous model.

The Cintiq Companion 2 is a very interesting product, outwardly it is a 13.3” QHD tablet which runs full Windows 8.1 on an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, configurable with up to 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.  Those are the sort of serious specifications for serious work that most tablets on today’s market lack.  However, the Companion 2 doesn’t stop there, as it can be connected to any other PC, to function as a full Cintiq display and pen input for that computer as well.  It can also be used as a monitor, even running from its’ own battery, for higher productivity even when away from an AC outlet.

The Companion 2 is a compelling product that is powerful enough to potentially be a photographer or graphic artist’s primary computer, depending on their workload.  However, it does have a rather large footprint for a 13.3” display, and at nearly 4lbs, it isn’t quite as portable as most other current Windows tablets.  For the right sort of professional, who demands high power in a transportable graphics tablet, the Companion 2 could be just right.

Notable Absences

In the run-up to CES 2015, I was disappointed to read that Fujifilm would not have a booth at this year’s show.  Not only do I use the X-System as my backup/lightweight camera system, and look forward to each year’s new developments from Fuji, but I’ve also found their representatives to be amongst the most affable and knowledgeable about photography.  Oddly Fuji announced their new 16-55mm f/2.8 lens just before CES, so this made their absence doubly annoying. 

Sigma was another major photo company unfortunately missing from CES 2015, though at least they did not announce any new products just before the opening of the show.  Much like their counterparts at Fuji, the representatives at Sigma were always extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and were well oriented to photography, not just technology.  Hopefully these absences are not a harbinger of things to come, but I fear they may be, as the mass market for photography equipment is largely saturated by consumer DSLRs and smartphones, until somebody comes along to disrupt the market again.


CES 2015 Report: A Photographer's Perspective

January 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Ah, the annual desert pilgrimage to see the latest and greatest in electronic gear and gizmos that is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has come and gone yet again, leaving in its' wake a trail of visitors overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of tech.  While it's easy to get lost in a sea of show reports, this one takes you through a number of developments all relevant to the serious photographer.

Nikon Booth, CES 2015 As a primarily Nikon-based photographer, I was keenly interested to see one of the company's most recently announced products, the Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF VR Lens.  The lens is a stunning upgrade to the previous model, as it adds an active stabilizer (Nikon's VR system), and a high-performing anti-glare coating (Nikon's Nano-coating), while drastically reducing the weight and size through the use of Phase Fresnel optical technology, a first in Nikon’s interchangeable lens systems.  The lens weighs only 1lb 10.6oz (755g) as compared to the 3lb 2.8oz (1440g) of its’ predecessor, and the length also diminishes, from 8.8in (222.5mm) to 5.8in (147.5mm). 

The new 300mm f/4 VR when in-hand is remarkably small for a high-performing telephoto lens, significantly less cumbersome than the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 wide-angle lens I frequently carry, and balances well on a mid-sized body like the D810. I initially wondered how difficult the lens might be to keep stable, given its’ combination of long focal length, and light/compact body, however those fears were quickly dispelled as I captured sharp shots across the hall.  The lens showed the excellent focus speed, optical quality one expects from a top-level Nikon lens, and I was only able to spot a couple of instances where the bokeh looked anything but perfectly smooth, shooting into some unusually-shaped lights.  Nikon wouldn't permit take-away samples shots.

Overall, this lens looks like a home run for Nikon, as the 300 f/4 with VR has been a long-awaited update for many, and Nikon’s surprise bonus of enormous size and weight savings through the use of new lens elements makes it a lens that more photographers are likely to carry and use in more situations.  In my book, the size is the most significant improvement, as the older 300 f/4 was simply too large to fit into my kit, this new version would be right at home, even on long-distance hikes.  The lens is slated to appear in stores in early February, with an MSRP of $1999.

Another lens I that piqued my interest is the new Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 G, a fast-aperture ultra-wide prime lens that doesn't break the bank ($699 MSRP) or back (12.6oz or 355g).  The lens struck me as a great potential complement to the aforementioned 14-24, offering easy filter compatibility with its' 77mm threads, and trading a faster maximum aperture and more compact build for the flexibility of the zoom.  Shots were quite sharp, even wide open, with nice, soft out-of-focus rendering for a wide-angle lens.  Interestingly, the same aperture blades that were well rounded when opened widely, when stopped down produced harsher, heptagonal bokeh, but also allowed for sensationally sharp sunstars when shot against the light (with nary a trace of flare).  All-in-all, a very impressive lens in a very reasonable package, one I look forward to using in the future.

 

Samsung NX and NX Mini cameras at CES 2015

At this point it’s likely we all either use or are familiar with Samsung products, but few know the Korean giant’s interchangeable lens camera systems.  This should start to change soon, as Samsung’s NX (1.5x crop, APS-C size sensor) and NX Mini (1” sensor) start showing up in more retailers and likely in more camera bags and pockets soon.

The NX1 is Samsung’s newest, top-of-the line DSLR-like mirrorless camera in their NX line, and it runs an all-new operating system as compared to past models like the NX20 and NX30. It also features an all-new Samsung-fabbed 28 megapixel sensor (currently the highest MP count on an APS-C sensor), and a revamped physical layout and controls.  I didn’t much care for the ergonomics and control scheme of past Samsung cameras, but the new software and controls of the NX1 really changed my mind, as I no longer felt lost in endless menus trying to find basic options, and the touchscreen enabled easy option changes not available on physical controls.

The Samsung NX lens line continues to grow, adding a 50-150mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom to last year’s 16-50 f/2.0-2.8 standard zoom in their top “S” line.  On the NX1 these two lenses deliver the quickest autofocus response I’ve seen on any mirrorless camera, along with sharp results and relatively smooth out-of-focus areas.  Samsung featured their entire lens line in the NX area, including a fast, sharp 300mm f/2.8 lens, and their intriguing lineup of pancake lenses (16mm f/2.4, 20mm f/2.8, and 30mm f/2.0).  As with other mirrorless systems, focus speeds varied from lens to lens, with some, like the 60mm Macro, being quite sluggish, even on the NX1.

Also intriguing was the NX Mini, a very small (think iPhone 6) sized interchangeable-lens camera based around a 1” sensor.  Samsung currently offers it with a 9-27mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (24-72mm full-frame equivalent), and more interestingly with 9mm f/3.5 and 17mm f/1.8 prime lenses (24mm and 46mm equivalents respectively.  Focus performance was reasonably good, and more importantly, low-light JPEG performance from the 20.5MP sensor bettered what I’ve seen from other 1”-sensor models like Nikon’s 1 system and Sony’s RX100 series, possibly due to Samsung’s improved image processing seen on recent devices like the Galaxy Note 4.  With a couple more tiny prime lenses, the Samsung NX mini could be an extremely compelling device for photographers wanting to pack ultra-light and not sacrifice too much creative control.

Overall, Samsung’s advancements in photography are quite compelling, and with updates to improve focus speed on some lenses, and filling out the lens line with missing lenses (fast 85mm, 35mm equivalents, faster ultra-wide prime or zoom, among others), the NX system should start garnering real attention and use from more and more serious photographers.  The NX mini also holds great promise for some niche uses, and as a go-anywhere companion, and I’m hoping that Samsung sees the promise and continues to expand the line.

In the next portion of this report, I’ll cover some other interesting cameras and gear from the likes of Panasonic, Wacom, and more!


Making the Most of It

January 12, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

A trip to Vegas is hardly complete without a tour of some of the incredible natural wonders within a few hours' drive, but on this recent trip, the weather decided not to participate.  Nevertheless, while clouds occluded the starry skies at night, and the towering sandstone formations of the Southwest by day, I pressed on to make the most of the trip.

Instead of spending as much time on some of the Southwest's sweeping vistas, I focused on finding the beauty in smaller, more intimate scenes, which can be found all over the red rock country of Southern Nevada and Utah, and Northern Arizona.

Etchings of ErosionVermilion Cliffs, Kane County, Utah, USA.

This photo is a great example of how those efforts can pay off, even in an unassuming area.  Off to the side of a road, behind some scruffy bushes and sandy dunes, stood one of grand Vermilion Cliffs, with a frozen waterfall covering part of its' face.  Rather than force a shot of the entire scene in mediocre lighting and overcast skies, I began tracing the cliff, looking for interesting patterns and formations.

A bit of scrambling later, and I found this aggressively eroded formation, complete with dramatic color and fin-like wings of rock jutting out.  It is only one of many interesting pieces found in this small area alone, allowing for an almost infinite number of intimate compositions.  Often, spectacular conditions, or simply the overwhelming novelty of a heretofore unvisited location can cause us to skip over these more intimate scenes in favor of the grandiose.

Don't give up on your day out in nature, just because the conditions aren't coming together as you might have hoped.  Press on, and keep looking, and before you know it, you'll find yourself shooting something interesting that you might never have imagined.  While pre-visualization is certainly a useful technique, don't let it constrain your creativity, and don't be afraid to get out there and explore.  I certainly find the journey to find an interesting image every bit as enjoyable as the final result, and I hope you will also.


Starting a Blog, At CES

January 06, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

It's a new year, and high time I started publishing my thoughts and adventures in photography and nature, so welcome to my new blog!

I'm headed to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and anxious to get hands-on with exciting new photography gear from the likes of Nikon, Panasonic/Leica, Samsung, and others.  I'll be reporting back with impressions and sample photos over the next couple days, so keep your eyes peeled for my coming updates.

Following that, look forward to exciting reports on winter photography from scenic, remote sections of the Nevada, Arizona, and Utah over coming week, and more to follow.

Happy 2015 and welcome!

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