Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Digital photography for the future

My post on image stabilization and innovation in digital photography got me thinking a little on what the future might bring to this area ... of course that it's so easy to fall to the extreme and say either that the megapixel race will last forever or that innovation is already stopping and not much evolution will ever be seen ... but the truth is probably in between :)

I am also quite proud of my technology predictions and especially those related to photography - I still have the magazine where at some point during the previous millennium I said that APS film will die and 35 mm film will become a niche market ... which was pretty much 'spot on' and maybe now I have a chance to see how good my new predictions are going to be in the future digital world ...

So what can the future bring to photography ? There are obvious not-so-technical things that will make a difference - like for instance the omnipresence of phones with a camera (and maybe we'll finally get the videophones that were so 'right around the corner' ... about 50 years ago :) ) but let's neglect the social part and focus more on technology!

There is one unusual thing that could improve even existing cameras - and that is better FIRMWARE - pretty much all consumer cameras are somehow rushed to the market and then NEVER see a firmware update since engineers are a little too busy rushing to the market the next generation of cameras! Even the more competitive brands like Ricoh are not always paying enough attention - for instance they could very easy add a few tweaks to their current best-selling camera - the Caplio R4 - and make it more appealing to the serious users without any sacrifice for low-end users (and they already have most of those software routines working in the more expensive GR Digital model - I am speaking about the RAW files and some manual time-vs-aperture control).

Image stabilization is already here - a little on the limited side at this point but things can only get better - and we might even start to see the use of sensor-based stabilization for 'movie mode' too! (obviously not from Canon - they have too much invested in lens-based stabilization).

I find hard to believe that the megapixel race will continue - maybe the CPU megahertz race might be a small hint on that - but while on computers the power consumption was the major limiting factor on digital sensors the enemy is the noise - and you can already see that the 8 megapixel sensors were generally slightly worse in noise than a 6 megapixel of precisely the same dimension! This also might be the major problem on the road towards decent cameras of ever smaller size - so I don't expect huge results on that either - but my R4 is small enough as it is :) The other major hurdle for the megapixel race might be (surprisingly) consumer education - most people with some digital camera experience can now realize that 8 megapixels can barely provide visual benefits over 6 megapixels for consumer-size sensors (and the difference from 8 to 10 will be mostly invisible on those sensors) and that other features - like zoom, low latency, low noise or stabilization - are far more important when choosing a camera!

There ARE however other things that could be improved and probably the most important of them all is about the 'non-bayer sensors' - Foveon has promised a revolution not entirely different from the one with image stabilization but so far has failed to deliver - that has a lot to do with the existing desire to preserve the 'status quo' (so again I can bet that none of the existing major sensor manufacturers will be involved) - but probably also a little with the technological hurdles that need to be surpassed (3 layers are hard to build one on top of the other in a VERY precise way) - maybe a wiser approach would be to first get to a simpler 2-layers structure for one of the 6 megapixel sensors only with much better color reproduction and much lower noise than the existing 6 megapixel models ! (and avoid marketing that as a 12 megapixel sensor anyway - Foveon was almost killed by such a marketing gimmick)

One other strange idea that I would like to see at least tested - but maybe I should first get a patent on it :) - would be something around the 'cumulative exposure mode' or at least 'multi exposure mode' - in which basically the camera will have two readings of (almost, or at least as close as possible) the same image - first using a time T and then another one taken with something like 4*T up to 16*T - with the right processing that might actually have the result of providing 2-4 extra bits of dynamics and finally surpassing the range of the best film!

So in the medium term I see no major danger but also no huge changes to photography as we have it today - maybe we'll see some wider/panoramic models, maybe a bit more stereoscopic stuff, eventually even things with software-enhanced-depth-of-field but all of those will still be based on the same 'focal plane paradigm' - but maybe one day somebody will also think of digital holography :)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The small gems are not coming from over-hyped companies

The statement in the title is not ALWAYS true - after all large and famous companies have the resources to do some important research - but the problem is again and again "defending the status-quo" - Microsoft is innovating only to keep users locked on their platform (and Google is also going on the same route), Apple is only interested in customers that will buy a new "overpriced but cool" MP3 player or notebook every half year or so (and as a result products tend to last less and less) - but the same is also true for digital cameras and this post will be a micro-review about such a small gem!

The top players in the digital camera market are probably Canon and Nikon in that order - on both the high-end and on the consumer market - and that's where the problem starts to show - both of them have a very, very large selection of models artificially created by simply holding certain features that will mostly cost nothing (firmware) of very little to implement but when missing will eventually push the consumer to a more expensive model or eventually to an earlier (but not quite needed) upgrade.

The most obvious moment of that consumer rip-off was the story of digital image stabilization (about 1-2 years ago) - for a long time Canon had a line of professional but VERY expensive image-stabilized lenses (1-2 models around 500 US$ and most of the rest in the 1000-3000 US$ range; and to tell the entire truth the quality was probably worth the price - FOR A PROFESSIONAL making a living out of that!) and Nikon was going pretty much on the same route - but there was no chance to break this marketing model from inside - and the innovation could only come from outside - so about 1-2 years ago Minolta (a much-much smaller player) launched the first digital SLR with image stabilization on the sensor that later spread to the consumer models and basically became the most important and practical innovation since the apparition of digital cameras. (sadly Minolta did not exactly survived - they first merged with Konica and later were sold to Sony).

Today the story is not dramatically different - neither Canon nor Nikon have sensor stabilization on their SLR models and Sony is the only one with such a product in development (based on Minolta legacy) - but the pressure from smaller players have forced both Canon and Nikon to add image stabilization to their consumer models - but again only in some models in order for the consumer to be forced to pay the maximum amount of money for their products ... so basically the most promising consumer models today are coming from Panasonic and Ricoh !!!

And this pico-review is precisely about a little-known gem from the second company - the Ricoh Caplio R4 - at this moment probably the only true pocket-camera with 7.1x zoom (28-200 equivalent of film) and image stabilization! (click on the image below for the Ricoh product page).

Ricoh is today a small player on the US digital camera market (actually they are no longer on that market directly) - so unlike for instance the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01 (which is also a small gem in itself and probably second only to the Ricoh R4) there are VERY few competent reviews - the best I could find were this one from ephotozine and this one published in Digital Lifestyles - but the Ricoh Talk Forum from dpreview is a very nice place and extra information can be found there! The camera is also difficult to find in US (mine was bought from popflash and they seem to be very nice).

However Ricoh was famous back in the days when film was king for the GR1 - probably one of the best point-and-shoot cameras that you could actually carry in your pocket and together with some other famous models like the Yashica T4/T5 or Olympus Stylus Epic have created history! (and serious photographers with over 20k$ worth of pro equipment were often using such gems for candid photos or just in order to have a decent camera at all times with them).

But technology evolved (mostly for the better I might say) and today for a very decent price (if we adjust the prices it is almost at the same level as the T4) you can have an incredibly small digital camera having a zoom with astounding range (28-200 film equivalent), image stabilization and usable noise!!! And just in case you still regret film-based point-and-shoot a little - you can take about 600-700 pictures with the R4 and only one (very tiny) extra rechargeable - compare that with the volume of 20 rolls of film and only then complain about technology :)

So now about the camera itself - yes, the noise is bad if you compare it with an EOS-1DS Mark II , but then again, the full R4 is smaller and lighter than only the battery from that SLR; and once you stop comparing it to cameras from a totally different class you can discover that the R4 is quite usable and the pictures can be great with a little tweaking. What is most important is that for a non-pro such a small camera can take pictures that a large SLR will never be able to make - since it will be left home! Even in low light the image-stabilization or the top ISO setting will be able to provide some results - of course that Neat Image and a little photoshop might help after that but the results can be quite lovable. The macro is amazing and the camera feels quite quick so my entire R4 experience was very pleasant so far!

As always there are things that can be improved - the battery/card cover could be (far) better and the small 'case' provided by popflash was indeed needed, but most important of all there could be one small extra firmware feature that would dramatically improve the entire R4 - in the ADJUST menu one extra option for a quick time-versus-aperture compensation would probably make this camera as close to perfect as we can get from just firmware !!!

So the final conclusion is that very smart gems can be found once you open up to brands beyond the 'market leader' - the Ricoh Caplio R4 is just one of them but examples can be found in any domain!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Vista - will it fail ... or not ?

The latest major public beta of Microsoft Vista has generated quite a number of reviews - so I will not go the same way - but from them there have been quite a number of 'opinions' from people that have almost no clue - I speak about people that either imply that they spend 99% of their time on Macs (or eventually Linux), people that have no idea what a huge scale beta means or generally how computing in a real enterprise is done - one of the most pathetic is here - huge and useless.

Let's first settle claims about failure or about OSX 'superiority' - if one year after the launch Vista will only have that pathetic 2.5% OSX has it will certainly be a failure, but until then the jokes are on OSX !!! Also people should seriously question any 'expert' making such claims - you will certainly see that laughable opinion among the MacFans that can't handle two mouse buttons but anybody with a little experience (and brain) knows that the superior operating system is the one that MOST PEOPLE are using on THEIR (existing) hardware and which runs THEIR (existing) programs! (and not something that would require buying expensive yet inferior or overheating hardware and ultimately will make you boot XP to play your games :) ) And before closing that subject a few links - first a brilliant parody of the new Apple ads, then a very funny reminder that modern Apple hardware is not only overpriced but also sucks and finally a very good take on the entire Apple philosophy based on their history!

And now back to Vista - the most important point is that the latest public beta is certainly a step into the right direction - hardware support is definitely better (but obviously far from perfect), the security alerts are FAR less intrusive than before and generally things seem to be going in the right direction - the main complaint is that things are just a little late and this beta should have been ready months ago!

There are also things that I would also like to see improved - for instance I would like tighter resource management (using 1 GB of RAM just because it's there is not a good enough reason), better notebook support (Aero should not mean that the power usage in the graphics card should become bigger than the one in the CPU) and better default support for advanced users - maybe an idea would be to add one initial option to the setup so that people could go to a Custom setup and get less dumbed-down defaults. And let's not forget - better API documentation!

Another important suggestion would be to use the huge pile of Micro$oft money and buy a few small companies with "power user toys" that should be added as optional features in the higher-end versions of Vista - most advanced Windows users would enjoy things like file dialogs extensions, clipboard history, advanced options for tray icons, a quick and small Windows equivalent of QuickSilver, virtual desktops and last but not least an easier way to see all windows tiled - the new Win+Tab looks cooler than Expose but looks might be deceiving - so why not buy such an existing tool - there are quite a few available for XP - and adapt it to the desktop composition model in Vista !!?? Also it might be an idea that all but the 1-2 lowest level retail Vista versions should contain MS Works or even a very-very basic MS Office - AppleWorks is no threat but on that segment OpenOffice is already an important competitor for Microsoft and generally the more expensive Vista versions should provide a slightly better value for money!!!

So the bottom line is that Vista will very likely NOT fail - it might eventually disappoint some people but definitely less than for instance the Apple products of 2006 - where the high expectations generated by the usual media frenzy were not met by the subpar execution of the actual products - so far nothing says overheating, overpriced and non-standard notebook better than a MacBookPro :)

However (unless some major goodies are added inside) Vista will also NOT be the MAJOR hit Microsoft might hope - it will mostly come preinstalled on the new high-end computers but low-end systems and certainly older computers will more likely use some older version of Windows for the remaining of their life!