CamerAgX

January 28, 2013

A photo scanner for $12?

Filed under: Gear, How to, Smart Phones, Weird cameras — Tags: , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 12:09 am
ION iPCS2GO - the iPhone 4 and the 4x6 drawer are in place

ION iPCS2GO – the iPhone 4 and the 4×6 drawer are in place

$12.00, really?

I was at Barnes and Noble’s the other day, when I saw this ION iPICS2GO pseudo-scanner in the bargains bin. Not really a scanner, though. It’s a sort of light box. There is no lens or imager inside. It’s just a stand where the iPhone actually taking and processing the pictures will be set.

Coupled with an iPhone, it can scan 3×5 and 4×6 prints, and, more interestingly, 24×36 negatives or slides.

The iPICS2GO was boxed, so I could not see it. But it was only $12. And even if it was a piece a junk, it was worth trying.

Unboxing

The whole thing is rather bulky (the size of a toaster), but it looks solid and well built. The negative holder and the 4×6 print holders are made of plastics of good quality and will not damage the originals, and the iPICS2GO will just needs four AA batteries to work. The print or the negative being scanned is lit by LEDs, which seem efficiently color corrected.

There is an iPICS2GO app on Apple’s app store, that you can download for free and use to control the camera of the iPhone. Although Apple’s built in Camera and Photos applications will give the same results if you “scan” a 4×6 print, you will need the ION application to enlarge and invert the 24×36 negatives. You could do it with Photoshop, but if you had a laptop and Photoshop, you would probably also own a real scanner and would not be interested in this product.

The core audience

As mentioned earlier, the iPICS23GO is not a scanner on its own. But paired with an iPhone 4, it forms a cheap and portable scanner, and its bundled application makes it easy to edit and share the scanned images, via e-mail or through Facebook. I can imagine a situation where you visit old friends or relatives, and they end up opening the proverbial shoe box where their favorite Kodak prints are stored. You scan a few pictures for immediate consumption on the iPhone, or share them around via email or on Facebook.

In this situation, the results are pretty good. IN order to benchmark the iPICS2GO, I scanned a 4×6 color print (the picture had been taken by a good 24×36 camera 10 years ago) with the ION box and with the real scanner of an all-in-one photo printer from Canon. Both images were transferred to a Mac, uploaded in Photoshop, and printed again. The Canon scan is a bit better (wider tonal range), but not that much. If the goal is just to casually look at old pictures on a smartphone, share them on Facebook or even print them again (4×6 prints, please, nothing larger), the ION iPICS2GO fits the bill.

4x6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO "scanner"

4×6 color print scanned by an iPhone 4 on the iPICS2GO “scanner”

Scanning negatives, on the other hand, is a much more difficult challenge.

The app does a good job at converting the negative into a positive image, whose quality is acceptable as long as you look at it on the iPhone (the original 24x36mm negative has a diagonal of 43mm; the screen of the iPhone has a diagonal of 3.5in, or 88mm – Th enlargement ratio is roughly 2:1). But don’t try to export it to a PC, or even worse, to print it. As soon as you enlarge it, the quality becomes unacceptable, as can be seen on close-up (below, on the right).

Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative

Screen capture of the ION app scanning a negative

Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)

Screen Copy of the ION iPICS2GO app (here, processing a negative)

Close up of the image created by the ION app (size: 376x240 points at 128ppi on an iPhone)

Moderate enlargement of the central part of the negative

I have to admit that the ION iPICS2GO is much better gadget than I expected. If your goal is to take snapshots of your favorite prints every now and then in order to have them always with you on your iPhone, it’s perfect. You can also email your images or post them in Facebook directly from the ION app.

On the other hand, if the only source document you have is a negative, don’t expect miracles. In the best case, the resulting image will be somehow acceptable as long as you look at it on your iPhone. Beyond that, it’s hopeless. If you love the picture, bring the negative to a minilab.

But in any case, an old picture reborn on an iPhone is better than any image forgotten in a shoe box.


Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4x6 print on a flatbed scanner

Bridge over the Verdon river (Provence). Scanned from a 4×6 print on a flatbed scanner

The original images were shot in France in “les Gorges du Verdon”, a small scale version of the Grand Canyon, in 2001. I don’t remember which camera I was using.

January 17, 2011

Happy New Year

Filed under: Gear — Tags: , , — xtalfu @ 12:49 am
Triel s/Seine - Dec 25th, 2010

Triel s/Seine - Dec 25th, 2010 - Nikon F3 - Nikkor 135mm F:3.5 - Kodak CN 400

On December 25th, I was testing my latest acquisition: a second hand Nikkor 135mm lens (the f:3.5 AI model). I had bought it the day before, in the most incredible store – Photo Cine Gobelins, in Paris. I would have probably paid less on eBay, but the lens was nice, and the purchase experience really unique.

Imagine a store – minuscule even by French standards, maybe 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep, filled up to the ceiling with lenses and cameras. The store may be deeper. There’s no way to know. It’s so packed with stuff. There’s only enough room for one chair, where the owner of the place, Mrs Vu Dihn Hahn, is sitting.

You enter the store. There’s hardly room for two standing people. You look rapidly around you, and, surrounded by this mountain of old equipment, you’re pretty sure Mrs Vu will never be able to locate the Nikon telephoto lens you’re asking for. You could not be more wrong. Obviously Mrs Vu does not need a computer to keep track of the inventory. She says she has two telephoto lenses, one pre-AI modified, one AI, and she announces the price. You’re surprised she could answer that fast, and you ask to see the AI model. In 10 seconds, she has escalated the north face of the mountain of equipment, and brought back a very nice Nikkor 135mm f:3.5. Its price is still labelled in French Francs (the French Franc was replaced by the Euro in 2002) so it must have been in Mrs Vu’s inventory for quite a while. But Mrs Vu accepts Visa, writes an invoice, and a few minutes later you’re the proud owner of a relatively expensive but nice Nikkor telephoto lens.

Out of curiosity, I asked Mrs Vu a few questions about the rest of her inventory. She has a few bodies (from Nikon and other well known brands), lots of pre-AF lenses, but nothing really exceptional. Don’t expect a miracle, she knows pretty well what’s in store and how valuable it is, and you will not fool her. But she may have the lens or the accessory you have been looking for for so long, and it will likely be in a very good shape.

I did not take a picture of Mrs Vu’s store, but Alain Bachellier did it last year and posted a few pictures in Flickr.


The Photo Cine Gobelins used equipment store (Paris)

The Photo Cine Gobelins used equipment store (Paris) From Flickr - Alain Bachellier


October 25, 2010

The Olympus OM-2 series – a revolution followed by 12 years of limited evolution

Filed under: Gear, Olympus cameras — Tags: , , , , — xtalfu @ 2:59 pm
Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n

Look at the picture at the left – showing side by side the OM-2 (produced from 1975 to 1984) and its short lived successor, the OM-2s (also known as the OM-2 Spot/Program or OM-2s/p in other parts of the world), which soldiered from 1984 to 1986. They look so similar.


During the same period, Canon went from the huge EF body to the AE-1 and finally launched the first SLR with a computer inspired interface, the T70 of 1984. Minolta evolved from the XE-7 to the XG before it changed the world of SLRs forever with the first successful autofocus SLR, the 7000. And the always conservative Nikon went from the massive Nikkormat EL to the compact Nikon FE2, which integrated most of the advances of the OM-2, and coupled them with a very fast aluminum shutter.


It is true that the OM series had a significant technological advance when it was launched. But by the end of the seventies the competition had more than caught up, taking advantage of miniaturized integrated circuits and micro-processors to offer compact and feature rich cameras. Olympus was slow to adapt to the micro-processor revolution, and had to face a lot of teething problems in the process.


The early years


Olympus OM-2n - Close-up (Front)

Olympus OM-2n - Close-up (Front) - Note the round rewind release button on the front of the camera.

Olympus OM-2n - Close Up (back)

Olympus OM-2n - Close Up (back). Note the screw-in flash shoe and the mode selector with 4 positions: Manual, Off, Auto and Battery Check


The OM-2 came a few years after the OM-1. The OM-1 had changed the world of SLRs by offering pro-level features in an incredibly compact body. The OM-2 was the automatic exposure declination of the OM-1. Interestingly, it still integrated the whole semi-auto exposure metering system of the OM-1 (with its two CdS sensors located in the prism housing), but in automatic exposure mode, it relied on blue silicon sensors located at the bottom of the reflex chamber, under the reflex mirror. Here was the true revolution: the silicon sensors measured the light reflected by the curtains of the textile shutter (and by the surface of the film) during the exposure itself. The capabilities of the camera in low light scenes are still unsurpassed, and with a compatible flash gun, the camera could control the duration of the flash exposure while the picture was being taken. Within a few years, all major competitors had adopted a similar system on a least a few of their models. In 1979, Olympus launched the OM-2n, a relatively minor update of the OM-2.


An attempt to catch up


Olympus OM-2s - close-up (front)

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (front) - the rewind release button is now on the top plate (marked with an R), between the shutter release button and the film advance lever.

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (back)

Olympus OM-2s - close-up (back) - The flash shoe is now integrated in the body of the camera, and the mode selector now has the following positions: spot/manual, auto, program and battery check.

The OM-2s is not an evolution of the OM-2n. In fact it’s a spec’d down version of the OM-4, which was launched in 1984 as the true successor of the original OM-2 series.
Inside a body which looks very similar, the OM-2s is much more modern than the OM-2n. On the OM-2 and OM-2n, the silicon light metering system, being located under the reflex mirror, did not receive any light when the mirror was in its usual (low) position, and could only be used during the exposure, if the camera was set in auto exposure mode. That’s the reason why the CdS metering system of the OM-1 had also been retained: not only to support the semi-auto mode, but also to provide an indication of the shutter speed that may be set by the automatic exposure circuits when the camera was set in aperture priority mode.


The architecture of the OM-2s is different. It introduces a second (and smaller) mirror under the main (now semi-transparent) reflex mirror, which redirects 20% of the light to the silicon sensor: there is no need for a separate circuitry for the semi-auto mode anymore. The Olympus engineers took advantage of their new setup to offer multiple exposure metering patterns: when configured as an aperture priority auto camera, the OM-2s uses a weighted average pattern, and, very logically, switches to spot metering when set in semi-auto exposure mode.


There are other differences between the OM-2 and the OM-2s. Two of them are of particular interest: the match needle in the viewfinder is replaced by a vertical LCD panel at the left of the viewfinder, which can be lit by a small lamp when the user presses a button on the right of the reflex chamber, and the absence of the “off” position on the big switch on the left of the top plate. The use of LCDs has no adverse impact on the ergonomics, and whether the photographer will prefer the LCD or the OM-2s to the needle of the OM-2 is primarily a question of taste.


The absence of an “off” position on the main switch is more of an issue: even if the photographer sets the speed ring on “B”, the OM-2s is never be completely off, and it needs new batteries regularly (every few months) even if the camera is not used. The situation is made even worse by a design fault in the circuit controlling the flash, which causes the battery of the body to be rapidly drained if a cobra flash is left in the flash mount. The LR-44 (1.5v Silver Oxide) batteries ued by the OM-2s are still easy to find and relatively inexpensive, but the poor management of the batteries was and still is a major issue for the occasional users, and it explains why this model is not as eagerly sought after as its siblings.


Using an OM-2 camera


In everyday use, there is very little difference between the OM-2n and the OM-2s. The ergonomics is almost identical, the viewfinders are very similar, and both cameras can be used alternatively on a photo shoot without any inconvenience. Both share the same qualities – small size, great ergonomics, large viewfinder, good perceived quality – and the same limitations – primarily the textile shutter, limited to 1/1000 sec, with a maximum flash synchro speed of 1/60. The performance of the shutter was in line with what the competition had to offer when the original OM-2 was launched, but in 1984 Nikon proposed much better with the FE2 and the FA, and the OM-2s was outclassed.


I used both cameras recently; I did not perform any scientific testing and my opinion is just based on my limited experience with a few rolls of film. I tend to trust the metering system of the OM-2s a bit more than the OM-2n’s, and the OM-2s is the camera I will chose if I can not bring both with me. I will just have to be sure that I always have a set of fresh batteries in my equipment bag.



More about the OM-2 family of cameras


Olympus is proud of its past, and presents the history of its cameras in its global Web site.


While not as detailed as the pages dedicated to Nikon cameras, Leo Foo’s “Photography in Malaysia” Web site still provides interesting information about the Olympus OM-2.


A long list of pages dedicated to the Olympus OM cameras is maintained by Wim Wiskerke. It is worth checking.

CamerAgX already published a blog entry covering the family of the Olympus OM bodies, and one about the differences between matrix metering and the multi-spot system of the Olympus OM-4.


Gull - Boston Harbor - Olympus OM-2s

Gull - Boston Harbor - Olympus OM-2s

October 4, 2010

Smart phones and photography – a follow up

Filed under: Gear, Smart Phones, Weird cameras — Tags: — xtalfu @ 4:50 pm


A few weeks ago, I was commenting that the market segment of low end digital cameras (let’s say anything not equipped with a zoom) was in danger of extinction, being superseded by smart phones.

Camera of the Nokia N8

The lens of the Nokia N8 - it bears the glorious Tessar name and as a true Tessar lens incorporates 4 elements, all aspherical this time. The Xenon flash is positioned above the lens.

Nokia’s previous high end models were already fitted with a “Carl Zeiss lens” and a 12 Mpixel sensor. A review of the new Nokia N8 by cnet shows that smart phone photography has reached a new level. With its 4 elements lens (all aspherical) and a Xenon flash, the Nokia N8 is in a class of its own, somewhere between the other smart phones and good point and shoot cameras. And Zeiss was obviously very proud of its contribution at the latest Photokina.


According to DPreview, Panasonic has started a teaser campaign to prepare the launch of “Lumixphones“, with a Lumix digital camera built in. Of particular interest is the fact that the camera section will include a mobile version of the “Venus” image processing engine. I suppose it is relatively easy to order and integrate a tiny image sensor and a small lens in a phone, but good digital images are created by good processing algorithms much more than by good lenses. The image processing section is the real differentiator and that’s where Panasonic may shine. When will we see smart phones with Canon Digic 4 or Nikon Expeed 2 image processors?


At the same time, Motorola and T-Mobile started releasing information about the DEFY, a rugged smart phone using the Android operating system. Scratch and water resistant, it boasts a 5 Mpixel camera with autofocus capabilities. It is not suitable for underwater photography, but another model may be in a few months.


The iPhone 4, with a 5 Mpixel sensor coupled with an autofocus lens (focal length: 3.5mm, equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm film camera), gives surprisingly good results on close-ups and when shooting relatively well lit interiors. It is also very good at taking pictures of big objects like cars and trucks. It is more difficult to get good results when shooting people – it is not as good as a regular camera at finding the right color balance; getting decent action shots is even harder. As for landscapes and low light situations (the “flash” is a joke), it’s bordering the impossible. Dedicated and talented iPhone users like Xeni Jardin can take incredible action shots with an iPhone 4, though, so the limit is obviously the photographer.


The focus of this site is film photography, and I will keep on shooting film and writing about film cameras. But using a film camera (or a regular digital camera) is not always a practical proposition, and sometimes a smart phone’s camera can save your day.



The Pool Table - Graceland (Memphis, TN)

The Pool Table - Graceland (Memphis, TN). Shot with an iPhone 4 - HDR activated

Hood ornament - Chevrolet - 1954

Hood ornament on a Chevrolet Police Car from 1954 - Shot in Tunica, MS with an iPhone 4 - HDR activated.


September 19, 2010

Gone fishing?

Hilton Head (SC) - Labor Day Week-End

On the beach - Labor Day Week-End. Hilton Head, SC - Olympus OM-2 - 28mm f:3.5 - Fuji Superia X-Tra 400 ISO


Well, not really. I’m working on the next series of blog entries: evaluations of the different options for having film processed and scanned, now that the minilabs around the corner don’t “do” film anymore. I didn’t reach a definite conclusion yet, but I already know one thing for sure. It’s not going to be cheap. It will for sure change the way I use film.


As long as processing and scanning were relatively inexpensive, I tended to take some risks – testing old cameras of unknown quality and bracketing a lot. Expensive lab services will bring me back to a more prudent approach – using better equipment, and paying more attention to my images while I’m shooting.


I started testing my latest acquisition, a very nice Olympus OM-2n, on a quick trip to Hilton-Head (South Carolina) a few weeks ago. But I have very few pictures to show at the moment, because of issues with the quality of pictures coming back from the labs I’m trying to evaluate.


The Photokina is about to open in Cologne. The most interesting innovations are coming from Sony and Fujifilm. Sony’s SLT-A55 still looks like an SLR, it still uses the Sony-Minolta-Konica A-mount lenses, but its conventional reflex mirror has been replaced with a semi transparent film. Reflex cameras with a semi transparent mirror are no news: Nikon and Canon have used this type of design on multiple occasions, when they wanted to propose high speed cameras (up to 13 images per second for the Nikon F3 High Speed) while getting rid of the finder black-out during exposure. But the motives are different this time. It’s about adjusting the focus when shooting videos.


Sony SLT-A55 Pellicle Mirror

Sony SLT-A55 Pellicle Mirror


There are currently two ways to control the focus on a digital autofocus camera. The simpler and cheaper way is to measure the contrast of the image directly on the sensor. The contrast of an image is supposed to be at its maximum when the image is in focus. So the camera moves the focusing elements of the lens forward and backwards until it finds the focusing distance which maximizes the contrast. This method is used primarily on Point and Shoot cameras, because the focusing process tends to be frustratingly slow and unacceptable for action photography.


Autofocus SLRs have been using another method, named Phase Detection. Specialized components (semi transparent mirrors, micro-lenses and dedicated sensors positioned under the reflex mirror) calculate the optimal focusing distance and then “ask” the lens to position its focusing elements for that distance. Focusing is much faster and less prone to errors, but it requires more hardware and – in the conventional SLR design – it can only operate before the photographer presses the shutter release and the mirror has started moving out of the light path – which makes it unsuitable for video.


Here comes Sony. The semi transparent mirror of the SLT-A55 camera is only used to direct enough light to the Phase Detection autofocus system, because there is no conventional optical viewfinder anymore. It is replaced with a good (by current standards) electronic viewfinder, fed directly by the camera’s main image sensor. Of course, the semi transparent mirror is taking 33% of the light from the main imaging sensor, but it’s an acceptable drawback in the current state of technology.


There is an even better way to solve the problem tough. A few weeks ago, Fuji presented a new point and shoot camera, the FinePix F300EXR, whose Hybrid Autofocus system operates most of the time in Phase Detection Mode, with the option to roll back to Contrast Detection in low light situations.


dpreview wrote a very well documented subject about Fujifilm’s Hybrid AF. To make a long story short, some of the photodiodes of the FinePix’s imaging sensor serve double duty: they contribute to the production of the overall image, but they also feed a Phase Detection focus determination algorithm. It may still need some work (read this review from AKIHABARAnews), but on paper it’s a simple and elegant solution. Not surprisingly, Sony has a patent for an equivalent technology, and Panasonic is rumored to be working on another variant of the same idea.


10 years after the introduction of the first mass produced dSLRs by Canon and Nikon, digital photography has reached maturity. For the first ten years, manufacturers focused their attention on the sensors and on the processing algorithms, and retained the architecture of the AF SLRs from the mid eighties, which was itself derived from designs of the thirties. Now that the basic problems have been solved and that the consumers are happy with the equipment they own, manufacturers have to explore completely different routes if they want keep their production lines busy. Interesting times ahead.

Fujifilm Phase Detection AF (Hybrid AF)

Fujifilm Phase Detection AF (Hybrid AF) - Image Courtesy of Fujifilm


September 1, 2010

An update about film scanners: the Plustek Optic Film 7600i

Shutterbug-Sept 2010 cover page

Shutterbug-Sept 2010 cover page


Somebody in the PR department of Plustek must have done a good job: three leading publications, the paper magazine Shutterbug (in the September 2010 issue) and the on-line magazines Luminous Landscape and Imaging-Resource just published detailed reviews of the Plustek Opic Film 7600i scanner.


Now that Minolta (a few years ago) and Nikon (very recently) lost interest in 35mm film scanners, the Plustek 7600i and Epson Perfection V750-M are two of the few remaining options for amateur photographers looking for quality results in the $500 to $1,000 price range. Simpler and cheaper models are more gadgets than photographic tools, and the Nikon Coolscan 9000 ED currently sells for more than $2,000.


I’m not going to paraphrase the reviews. The best is to click on the links and read what the testers thought about the Plustek scanner and its software dotation:

  • Luminous Landscape: a review by Mark Segal. Mark published a short summary of his review in Luminous Landscape, and made a much more detailed review available as a downloadable PDF file. In his detailed analysis, he included a very interesting comparison of the Plustek with the Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED and the Epson V750-M Pro. A must read if you’re looking for a scanner right now.
  • Imaging-Resource offers a detailed review of the scanner, and also includes a comparison of two scanning applications, Vuescan and Silverlight.

  • Shutterbug is primarily a paper magazine, available in kiosks and in libraries such as Barnes and Nobles or Borders, but the guys at Shutterbug also make their archives available on line. They regularly publish reviews of scanners and tutorials about scanning. I recommend a very interesting article on how to scan Black and White film, published two years ago. As recommended by the author, I’m using chromogenic film (Kodak CN400) when I shoot in Black and White, and I’ve never regretted it. Interestingly the scanner used by the author, David B. Brooks, was a older Plustek model, the 7200.


    Luminous Landscape Plustek Scanner test

    Luminous Landscape Plustek Scanner test



    August 29, 2010

    It’s getting harder to have film processed around here

    Ferrari 250 GT Comp./61 SWB (1961)

    Ferrari 250 GT Comp./61 SWB (1961) - The Allure of the Automobile - Atlanta (Olympus OM-2s - Processed and scanned at Costco, in May 2010)


    So far, I was lucky. My local Costco warehouse was still processing film: I could drop a 35mm cartridge and have it processed, scanned and transferred to a CD in less than 60 minutes, for less than $5.00. The scanning was done on a good Noritsu machine, correctly tuned, which produced 3000 x 2000 digital images, equivalent to what a 6 Mpixel sensor would capture. The color balance was right, the accentuation minimal, and the saturation was kept within reasonable limits.


    Last week, the Noritsu was gone. The employee at the counter directed me to another Costco warehouse, in another part of town. They could develop the film, they could scan it, but could not transfer it to a CD because the CD burner was out of service. I had to come back two days later to get my CD, on which the pictures happened to be over saturated with a rather narrow dynamic range. Not encouraging.


    I’m afraid I will have to find another solution. I will try different options (other local minilabs, mail to order, pro labs), and I will report on my findings.


    If you can recommend a good lab in the Atlanta area or a good mail to order service, please feel free to do so.


    Thank you


    August 27, 2010

    Lobbying to make the use of film mandatory?

    Filed under: Gear, News — Tags: , , , , , , — xtalfu @ 1:47 am


    White Elephant - Hollywood Boulevard - Los Angeles

    The symbol of an industry? Two white elephants sit at the top of columns on Hollywood Boulevard.


    You may have read about this last week – the immensely popular RIAA and the always forward looking NAB, representing respectively our beloved recording industry and the owners of radio stations, are teaming to lobby the US Congress in order to make FM radio receivers mandatory on every cell phone or smartphone sold in this country.


    Cell phones have been available for more than 15 years now, and the few manufacturers who tried to sell cell phones with built in FM radio did not see any explosion of their sales volume. Ten years ago, the buyers of cell phones didn’t see the need of an integrated FM receiver, and now that Internet radios and Pandora are available, there are even less reasons to place a good old FM tuner in a brand new 3G smartphone.


    By the way, what’s the justification for putting an FM receiver in a cell phone? Public safety. According to the NAB, cell phone users would be able to listen to emergency messages on their favorite FM radio station.


    Too bad the photographic film industry did not have the same imagination. Or they could have imposed 35mm Film Cameras in candy bar cell phones, and Instant Film cameras in smartphones. Cell phone carriers would have obliged the film industry by proposing two year agreements including two new cartridges of film per month. And the justification would have been national security, of course.


    Imagine the business opportunities. Apple negotiating a 5 year exclusivity with Polaroid, Verizon smartphones printing two copies of the same picture for the price of one. And another carrier imposing hefty fees for the consumers who did not burn their 48 pictures during the last 30 days.


    We really missed something.

    August 19, 2010

    The end of point and shoot digicams?

    Filed under: Gear, Weird cameras — Tags: — xtalfu @ 2:41 am


    What do digital watches, portable navigation systems and point and shoot cameras have in common?


    Their sales are shrinking. The fact is little known beyond the narrow circle of watches aficionados, but sales of Japanese digital watch movements have been going down for a few years now. Digicam sales reached their peak two years ago, and you just have to look at the price of stand alone GPS units to see that a firesale is going on.


    The cause for all of this? Cell phones in general, and smartphones in particular.


    I remember my first “smartphone”, a Palm Treo 600, and its dreadful VGA camera (0.3 Megapixel). Not only was the resolution of the sensor hopelessly low (640×480), but the quality of the lens itself was abysmal. Unusable. Period.


    Nowadays, top of the line smartphones don’t necessarily have high resolution sensors (the iconic iPhone 4 only packs a 5 Megapixel chip), but their lens quality is significantly higher and the image processing software much better than a few years ago. Look at the picture below, taken in Rome with a very simple Nokia XpressMusic 5530. It was my first day in that beautiful city, I did not have my “serious” camera with me, and I used what was available, namely my cell phone and its tiny 3.2 Megapixel sensor.


    Rome - Piazza de la Repubblica - Dec 2009

    Rome - Piazza de la Repubblica - Nokia XpressMusic 5530


    Not bad, at least for Web postings.


    Higher end Nokia phones (like the recently announced N8) are equipped with Carl Zeiss branded lenses and 12 Megapixel sensors, and promise much better results. It is true that the sensor and the flash integrated in smartphones are too small, and that their reactivity is still too low to allow them to compete with high end point and shoot cameras or with dSLRs. Particularly in low light situations or with very mobile subjects.


    But low-end and medium of the range digicams are obviously under the threat of the more ubiquitous and versatile smartphones. That’s one of the reasons why camera manufacturers are launching a bucket load of waterproof cameras at the moment. Underwater photography is a niche that cell phones have not penetrated yet. Until October, if this rumor about an incoming Motorola Jordan has to be believed.


    July 13, 2010

    Underwater adventures – digital cameras make more sense


    I recently had the pleasure to spend one week snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean. True to my calling, I had decided to bring a film camera, and purchased a Nikonos V on eBay a few weeks before the departure.


    The Nikonos V


    Nikonos V

    The Nikonos V (source: eBay)


    The Nikonos V, launched in 1984 and sold until 2001, is an underwater viewfinder camera with interchangeable lenses. It can operate at depths of 50m (150ft), beyond what is considered the limit for recreational scuba diving. Some lenses were specifically designed for underwater use, but the “standard” lens (a 35mm W-Nikkor) could also be used above the water, for white water sports or for photography in all sorts of very humid environments. A special “camouflage” version was even manufactured by Nikon for war correspondents following conflicts in some remote jungle.


    Technically, the Nikonos V – which is a viewfinder camera – is more or less aligned on the Nikon SLR bodies of the mid eighties: Through The Lens (TTL) exposure, aperture priority automatic shutter, and – importantly for an underwater camera – Through the Lens flash metering. I uses the same W and U/W Nikkor lenses as the previous Nikonos bodies, and provides no focusing assistance to the photographer, who has to guess the distance between the camera and the subject, and set the lens accordingly.


    I could not test the Nikonos V in its element. The one I bought on eBay happened to have a defective metering system, and the seller did not know enough about the camera to understand it did not work as it should have. I returned it and go my money back, but I was back to square one, with no camera for my vacation.


    Lesson #1: if you really want to buy a Nikonos V, buy it from a store specialized in underwater equipment. You will pay more (a good Nikonos V costs between $250.00 and $350.00) but the seller will be able to certify that the camera really works, and has not suffered from an unplanned bath of salt water in the past.


    The Nikon Action Touch


    Nikon Action Touch (source: eBay)

    Nikon Action Touch (source: eBay)


    When I bought the Nikonos V, I decided I needed a backup camera. I found (on eBay again) an old Nikon Action Touch, an autofocus Point and Shoot from the eighties, designed for use in depths of 10 ft (3 meter) or less. I had read good reviews of the camera, and since I could have it for less than $8.00, the risk was minimal. I tried it in a swimming pool. It seemed to work. On the first dive in the ocean, it died. Salty water had found its way in the film chamber, making the camera unusable.


    Lesson #2: old waterproof cameras do not necessarily stay waterproof over time, and a dip in a swimming pool can not be compared to a dive in the ocean.


    Lesson #3 is to take the claims of the manufacturers regarding the water resistance of their products with a grain of salt (no pun intended). Cameras manufacturers now use the IP code (International Protection Rating) to define the water resistance of their products in different circumstances (sprays, water jets, immersion, for instance), but the performance of older cameras was more loosely defined, and important safety margins have to be taken.


    The Canon Powershot D10


    Canon D10 (source: Canon)

    Canon D10 (source: Canon)


    With two old film cameras out of commission, I had to admit that underwater cameras do not age well, and that buying a new digital Point and Shoot camera was the safest solution if I wanted to bring back at least one picture from my trip. The Canon Powershot D10 was the winner of a dpreview test last summer. It is rated “IP8X” equivalent at 10m (33 ft), making it appropriate for beach activities and for snorkeling. The Canon D10 is a typical middle of the range digicam – with a 12 Mega Pixel sensor, a 35-105 equivalent zoom, and 18 different “special shooting modes”, including “underwater” and “beach”. Selecting a special shooting mode is the only thing the photographer can do: the camera will take care of the rest. It does a good job at it – most of the time – but the inability for the photographer to really control the exposure parameters can be frustrating in complex lighting situations (sunsets, for instance).


    Rated for depths up to 10 meters, the Canon D10 can not be used for scuba diving, but can be brought along when snorkeling. Its “underwater” special shooting mode is very good at finding the right color balance, but the shutter lag is typical of a point and shoot camera (far to high), the autofocus reacts too slowly – or not at all, and pictures of mobile subjects are very difficult to take. The LCD monitor has to be “on” all the time, which drains the battery rapidly. That being said, a good diver should be able to bring back decent pictures of relatively static subjects located in shallow waters.


    Lesson #4: even dpreview comparative test winners can not overcome the limitations of their middle of the range point and shoot origins. Waterproof digicams are small and light, and will be faithful companions of white water or snorkeling adventures. But they offer little control over the pictures and are limited to a few feet of depth, which explains why dedicated diver-photographers use high-end digicams or SLRs, that they protect with massive (and often massively expensive) underwater housings.


    What good diver-photographers do


    While on vacation, I had the pleasure to meet Dr Alain Feulvarc’h – he’s an MD, a passionate diver and amateur photographer who was volunteering as the scuba-doctor of our little group.


    He was not on the boat to teach underwater photography, but he shared a few tidbits of information: like most of the diver-photographers, he’s using a digital SLR enclosed in a metal underwater housing, and equipped with a very wide angle (10mm) lens. He also uses a 100 mm macro for close ups. Most pictures are taken with a flash (one strobe at least), and at close distance from the subject. He does not rely on the automation capabilities of the camera, and operates in manual mode. Underwater photography is a fairly complex activity, and using digital technologies improves the learning curve dramatically. I was surprised to see that even underwater, some photographers took the time to check the histograms of their images, and to adjust their settings accordingly; this trial and error process would be impossible with film.


    You can watch Dr Alain’s stunning pictures on Flickr.


    Star Fish - Turks and Caicos - Canon D10

    Star Fish - Turks and Caicos - Canon Powershot D10 - The star fish was lying on the sand, at a depth of 2m. (6 ft) approximately. It was well lit and static, and the camera had no difficulty capturing its image.




    More about underwater photography


    The excellent Photo.net published an interesting Underwater Photography Primer more than 10 years ago. At that time film photography still reigned supreme, but most of the principles exposed in the article still hold true.


    The pictures of Alain Feulvarch are on Flickr (aka Alain76 on Flickr)


    The characteristics of the Canon Powershot D10 are on Canon’s official site.


    The Nikonos family on Photography in Malaysia‘s web pages


    And for geekiest of us all, the detailed description of the IP ratings


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