Sunday, 23 August 2015

Impact of sensor size

Looking back, we have had "the megapixel race", in which camera makers aimed put more and more resolution into their cameras. And for compact cameras, we have had the "superzoom race", so far culminating in the mindboggling 83x built-in optical zoom in the Nikon Coolpix P900.

In the enthusiast segment, though, there is a very clear trend at the moment: The importance of the sensor size. We have the very successful Sony RX100 large sensor compact camera sporting a "one inch" sensor, while previously cameras from the same segment typically had 1/1.7 inch sensors.

So why, exactly, is the sensor size important? It does lead to larger and more expensive cameras, and larger lenses, so there must be positive aspects as well to balance this out.

One such positive is bokeh: The larger the sensor, the thinner the depth of focus is. Meaning that the foreground and background will be more out of focus, everything else equal. Read more about it here.

Also, the larger the size of each individual photosite, the better the quality. At least in theory. Hence, one would normally expect less noise and better dynamic range from a larger sensor than from a smaller sensor. To illustrate this, I have taken the same pictures using three different sensor sizes:


From left to right: Nikon 1 V3 (one inch sensor size), Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II (Four Thirds sensor size), and Nikon D3300 (APS-C sensor size).

Here is a relative comparison of the sensor sizes:


About the test cameras: Nikon 1 V3 is the "enthusiast" CX size camera from Nikon, with a user optional EVF, and a very deep buffer suited for fast continuous shooting. However, the sensor is already one generation old, and fans are now waiting for the newer sensor, seen in Nikon 1 J5, to appear in an updated Nikon 1 V4. Probably, this camera will be announced early 2016.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is a very feature laden and compact camera. It is pretty much state of the art in terms of image quality within Micro Four Thirds.

Even if the Nikon D3300 is the entry level model, it still has the newest 24MP sensor. So while it lacks in terms of autofocus performance and continuous shooting compared with more expensive models, the sensor is as good as it gets currently.

Here is one scene photographed with all the cameras (click for larger images):


Here are some 100% crops from the images at ISO 200 and 1600 to compare the image quality:


Sadly, it appears that the focus was a bit off with the first Nikon D3300 shot, even if I did use live view and CDAF for the best accuracy. But still, we see very clearly here that the Nikon D3300, with the biggest sensor, retains the best clarity at high ISO. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II appears to apply more sharpening, which makes the edges look sharper. But some details are lost in the process.

With the smallest sensor, the Nikon 1 V3 starts losing details at ISO 1600. You should avoid pushing the ISO above 800 with that camera.

Another example:


And 100% crops:


A good test of the noise characteristics, is to lift the shadows. So I did that in Lightroom for all the exposures, by using the RAW file. Here is what they look like with an exposure compensation of +2 (two stops increase):


This comparison was not completely fair, since the exposure with the Nikon D3300 was somewhat lower. This makes the shadows more noisy.

But still, it shows that you have a better chance of recovering shadows with a larger sensor camera, especially at a high ISO.

Conclusion


A larger sensor gives you a thinner depth of focus, popularly called more bokeh, even if that is technically somewhat meaningless.

Also, with a larger sensor, you could expect to get a better high ISO performance. And if you need to increase the exposure in post processing, the image coming from a larger sensor camera is probably going to give you a better result.

On the other hand, a larger sensor also means a larger camera, and a larger lens. I think a nice balance is the Four Thirds sensor size, used in the Micro Four Thirds cameras. The moderate size of the sensor allows the lenses to be smaller and lighter.

The Nikon 1 system, with the even smaller "one inch" sensor, is not there yet in terms of image quality, in my opinion. But give it one-two more generations of sensor development, and I think the image quality should be sufficient for most uses.

On the other hand, there are manufacturers who would like the customers to go for the larger "fullframe" size (36mm by 24mm). Sony has their A7 mirrorless line, and are working hard to complete it with the lenses typically needed by enthusiasts. Nikon also wants to push their DSLR users into their FX ecosystem, where the profit margins are much larger.

Fujifilm are happy with the APS-C sized sensor, though, and are committed to creating the best system around it.


Monday, 17 August 2015

New Lumix 20mm lens: Better focus ring

The Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake is a classic Micro Four Thirds lens. Being the first Panasonic prime lens, it is widely considered to be very well performing. But it has some shortcomings: Due to the old fashioned focus design, where the whole lens assembly moves back and forth during focusing, the autofocus is rather slow. Also, the large focus assembly makes it very noisy when focusing.

In 2013, Panasonic updated the lens. It is well known that the new lens is largely a cosmetic redesign: The optical layout is the same, and the focus method is the same. But is the new lens better? The new lens is available in black and silver, and you can see the silver version to the right below:


Old (left) and new (right) versions of the Lumix G 20mm f/1.7

Design wise, I much prefer the old version, to the left. I don't like glossy lenses. The specifications are very similar, but the new one is lighter, even if it has a thin metal outer body:

LensLumix G 20mm f/1.7Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 II
Lens elements/groups7/57/5
Aperture diaphragm blades77
Minimum focus0.20m0.20m
Diameter63mm63mm
Length26mm26mm
Filter thread46mm46mm
Weight100g87g
Hood includedNoNo
Optical image stabilisationNoNo

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Less camera sales, fewer camera models?

A lot has been said recently about the decline in the camera market: The number of sold camera units have decreased dramatically in the recent years. This is mostly due to mobile phones having good enough cameras, and, perhaps even more importantly, that mobile phones are connected, making it easier to share images and videos on social media.

This decline in sales mostly affects the low end of the market, meaning basic compact cameras. These are most easily replaced by the camera phones.

System cameras, with interchangeable lenses, still sell fairly well, even if their numbers also drop. Among these, we see a small increase in the ratio of mirrorless cameras sold. But DSLR cameras still hold a major part of the market.

With this new reality, what should the camera maker's response be? They can try to make even better cameras, to capture a larger share of the cameras actually sold, or they can try to scale down and only produce the kind of models which people buy the most of. So are there fewer camera announcements now?

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

New firmware for Lumix 14-140mm II

Panasonic recently updated the firmware for a number of their lenses (click here). The updates are mostly geared towards the upcoming Lumix GX8, promising to deliver the dual IS feature, using both the lens optical image stabilization, and the camera sensor shift image stabilization at the same time.

One of the lenses affected is the Lumix G 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 superzoom lens (click for my review). Compared with the older version of the lens, I find that it is better in every way: Smaller, lighter, cheaper initial price, better image quality.

There are some who say that the new version of the lens causes "micro jitters" when recording video handheld, which makes it impossible for use with video. As the lens is advertized for video use especially, this sounds like a very bad thing.

To see if there is a problem after the new v1.1 firmware upgrade, I have tested the lens together with the old version, supposedly free from the micro jitters issue. I've mounted them on a pair of Lumix GX7 cameras, and recorded video at 1080p, 50FPS. To avoid motion blur, which might hide the micro jitters, I set a fast shutter speed at 1/250s.


Both cameras were connected to a Desmond mini stereo bracket. The new version of the lens to the right.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Can you make money off your photos with Foap?

There is a demand for pictures for use as illustrations, both online and in the real world. This market is capitalized upon by a number of marketplace services, aiming to be a middleman between the photographer and the publisher.

One such middleman is Foap. From the point of view of the photographer, Foap is an app, where you can upload your photos, and sell them for US$5.

Now, this doesn't sound like a lot, you may say, but let me add that this is the sum you get for a single use of the picture, you retain the copyright, and you can resell it a number of times.

The buyer pays US$10 for each image use, and Foap cashes in on the difference, that is their business idea.

So how does this work? Essentially, Foap tries to be two different things:

  • A marketplace for selling your photos
  • A community for photo interested people

Uploading a photo is much like on social media like Instagram: You will be asked to provide a name, an "story" behind the photo, and tags. Filling out this, especially the tags, is very important, as this is how the buyers find their pictures.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Who are best at firmware upgrades?

When a manufacturer releases a camera, it is not finished. You can still expect to be able to upgrade the firmware, the software inside the camera, to fix bugs, and even to add more features.

For example, it was a firmware upgrade which added the 4K Photo feature into the Lumix GH4, a feature which is now standard in all new Lumix M4/3 cameras. About a year ago, there was a rumour that a firmware upgrade would add 4K video recording to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (which never materialized), and we are now waiting for a firmware upgrade which will add the V-log video format to the Lumix GH4.

The cynical view to firmware upgrades is that the manufacturers use their customers to do the testing: When they find mistakes in how the camera operates, they issue a firmware upgrade. But the positive view is that being able to upgrade all cameras out there allows the companies to stay competitive, and offer more features.

However your view on firmware updates, there are opinions out there that certain manufacturers are better at keeping their old cameras up to date with new firmware, whereas other companies neglect their older cameras and prefer to sell new ones. Specifically, people often say that smaller manufacturers like Fujifilm and Pentax are good at releasing firmware upgrades for older cameras, while the big two, Canon and Nikon, are not as good.

To put this to the test, I have examined two cameras from each manufacturer. I chose one camera which is about 2-3 years old, and one which is around 5 years old. I kept to fairly expensive models, cameras which are often used by amateur photography enthusiasts.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Lumix GX8

Panasonic recently released the Lumix GX8. So what is it all about?

The Lumix GX7 was a ground breaking camera. The first from Panasonic to feature in-body image stabilization (IBIS) through moving sensor, and the first to have a "rangefinder layout", with the eye level viewfinder on the top left side. The Lumix GX8 is essentially the same camera, but brings the specifications up to date, and becomes the first Micro Four Thirds camera with a 20 megapixel resolution.

CameraLumix GX7Lumix GX8
AnnouncedAug 1st, 2013July 16th, 2015
PriceUS$650 incl lensUS$1200 body only
Flash X-sync1/320s1/250s
Max shutter speed1/8000s1/8000s (mechanical), 1/16000s (electronic)
Resolution4592 x 3448 (16MP)5184 x 3888 (20MP)
Max video resolution1080p4k
Built in flashYesNo
Weight402g487g
Dimensions (mm)123 x 71 x 55133 x 78 x 63
In-body image stabilization (IBIS)YesYes

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Lumix kit zoom lenses compared

Fans have been puzzled over the large number of kit zoom lenses released by Panasonic. Why reiterate this formula so many times, when the original Lumix G 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 was so good, many will ask.

The answer is probably three-fold: To cut costs, to make the lens smaller, and to improve the quality. Here are the lenses sold in kits after the original zoom lens:


In the front, I have the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 and the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN, which I will use as reference lenses. After all there are plenty of those who think that a prime lens is always better than a zoom lens, and we shall see if it is true.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Systems compared

When buying into an interchangeable lens camera system, it is wise to evaluate the system as a whole, not just the most recent cameras. Perhaps you find the full sensor 4K and 28MP resolution of the Samsung NX1 intrieging, but is the rest of the system to your liking?

I have tried to compare the camera and lens lineup that a serious enthusiast would typically buy. Now, there are no two equal enthusiasts, of course, so this comparison is not going to be relevant for everyone. But I am going to assume that a typical serious user wants an ergonomic camera body, with a lineup of a fast normal lens, a fast standard zoom lens, a fast tele zoom lens, and a wide angle zoom lens.

Sure there are other lens types as well, for example one might want a fast wide angle lens, a portrait lens, and even a fisheye lens. But in this comparison, I am keeping it simple.

The stars indicate a fitness to purpose, i.e., how well would a serious enthusiast think that this lens satisfies the expectations? This is of course quite subjective.

CameraFast normalFast standard zoomFast tele zoomWide angle zoom
Panasonic M4/3

Total price: US$4,790

Total weight: 1,725g


US$1500
560g

US$600
200g

US$900
305g

US$950
360g

US$840
300g
Olympus M4/3

Total price: US$5,050

Total weight: 2,429g


US$1100
497g

US$350
136g

US$900
382g

US$1400
880g

US$1300
534g

Micro Four Thirds


You'll find the biggest and most mature lens lineup among mirrorless camera systems in Micro Four Thirds. I have made two rows in the table, for Panasonic and Olympus separately, but you can mix them if you want.

For the zoom lenses, you would normally want to match the brand names, though, as they have different strategies towards image stabilization.

I deducted a star off the Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera, as it is not super for video use, and it is aging a bit now. We can expect a new version of the camera within the next year.

Look out for: Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye (my review), probably the best value fisheye lens ever.
Samsung NX

Total price: US$5,010

Total weight: 2,380g


US$1300
550g

US$210
85g

US$1300
622g

US$1600
915g

US$620
208g

Samsung NX


Samsung has been very innovative and packs a lot of features into their products. They have a very good value for money at the moment, but the lens lineup is still a bit immature for what a serious enthusiast expects. They don't have a "proper" normal lens, for example, and not a very wide zoom lens.

For the most bang for buck, keep watching Samsung.
Fujifilm X

Total price: US$5,030

Total weight: 2,687g


US$1150
440g

US$450
187g

US$1200
655g

US$1600
995g

US$800
410g

Fujifilm X


Fujifilm have been good at addressing the "conservative" serious enthusiast, who expects retro designed cameras with old style shutter dials, and aperture rings on the lenses. At the same time, they also pack their cameras with very innovative technology.

Looking at their lineup of lenses and cameras, they have come very far in the relatively short time span of their mirrorless endeavour. They are committed to the APS-C sensor size, and will not be developing full frame cameras.
Sony E APS-C

Total price: US$2,400

Total weight: 1,185g


US$550
344g

US$450
155g

US$300
116g

US$350
345g

US$750
225g

Sony E APS-C


Sony were one of the first movers into mirrorless, but appear to have abandoned their APS-C offerings at this point. They are probably going to release an update of the Sony a6000 camera soon, but they don't appear to plan releasing more enthusiast friendly lenses for this system.

Their kit lens is quite poor, see my test here. And there is no fast tele lens.

Look out for: Yasuhara Madoka 180, a compact, well performing, afforable circular fisheye lens. See my review.
Sony E Full-frame

Total price: US$5,850

Total weight: 2,357g


US$1700
600g

US$1000
281g

US$1200
426g

US$1500
850g

US$450
200g

Sony E Fullframe


On the other hand, it is clear that Sony's focus now is to make a proper fullframe mirrorless system. This is where the bigger margins per unit are. Looking at the table above, you'll see that the Sony fullframe system is the most expensive, but not by a big margin.

Looking at the weights, the system is not that heavy. But keep in mind that the lenses are much more bulky than the other systems here. So even if you don't need to carry heavy, you'll need a larger bag anyway.

However, the zoom lenses are not as fast, and there is no wide angle zoom lens yet. But I am sure Sony are going to fill these gaps soon, especially the wide angle lens. They appear very committed to this fullframe system.

Look out for: Several different versions of the camera, Sony a7R (high resolution, but somewhat sluggish performance), Sony a7S (high sensitivity and 4K video), and Sony a7 II (basic version, features in-body image stabilization).
Nikon 1

Total price: US$2,090

Total weight: 841g


US$1150
381g

US$190
70g

US$0 (included in kit)
85g

US$250
180g

US$500
125g

Nikon 1


The Nikon 1 system, in general, does not have what a serious enthusasist expects. There are no fast zoom lenses, and not many fast prime lenses beyond the Nikkor 32mm f/1.2 portrait lens.

I would say the Nikon 1 system is only for those with very special needs. For example, with the extremely long and compact zoom lens Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, it is the best system for bird photography when you want a very compact and light combo.

Also, the cameras have an impressively fast framerate, up to 60fps including full RAW capture. This makes it useful for sports and other types of specialized photography.

But for general use, I would not recommend Nikon 1 now. The zoom lenses in the table above are certainly good, but not what a serious enthusiast is looking for in terms of the maximum aperture.

Other systems


I did not include the Canon EOS M system here, for obvious reasons: They don't have nearly a system yet, and no lenses which would make it to this list.

When people buy camera systems, a lot still buy DSLRs, i.e., not mirrorless cameras. I did not include DSLR systems on this list. But if I did, you would find that the prices are mostly the same, but the sizes are larger.

DSLR systems are very mature, which translates into moderate prices. But with the longer register distance due to the mirror, both the cameras and the lenses become bigger. And heavier.