Is Infrared Dead?

•September 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I can’t think of an article I’ve drafted, re-written, and re-drafted as many times as this one. I’ve gone back and forth on the subject so many times, but I think I’m finally coming to terms with it.
To start with, there are at least two areas of photography in which I am well equipped to tackle – even though I seldom do.
Strangely enough, I have enough macro equipment to make one think I am an accomplished close up photographer. Yes, I’ve got a nice macro lens, adapters to put enlarging lenses on bellows, extension tubes, high-grade close-up lenses, a focusing rail, reverse adapter, and other assorted paraphernalia. I guess I just like playing with the gadgets, because I don’t really do all that many macro photos.
Then there’s infrared. I have experimented long and hard with invisible light photography. I have tried different films, filters, and cameras. And yet, aside from a handful of nice images, there’s not all that much to show for my efforts.
Now I wonder if it was all in vain anyway. Is infrared photography irrelevant nowadays, despite our best efforts?
In the beginning, there was Kodak’s High Speed Infrared film. I don’t think we appreciated it as much as we should have, back then, when it was just about the only game in town. By the 1980s, it was only available in 35mm, and it was oh so grainy. And strongly-lit highlights “glowed” bright white – something its fans loved.
The amazing thing about it, was that it delivered the goods with the use of just an ordinary R25 red filter. Kodak’s clever trick was to make this film see deep into the infrared light spectrum, but made it almost blind to red light. All you had to do was stick the red filter on your lens to wipe out all wavelengths from violet to orange. You could then focus and compose through the red image the film couldn’t see, and then happily photograph those wavelengths in the infrared 700 to 900 nanometer range – where the black and white world takes on a ghostly tonal scale: deep black skies and bodies of water, luminous foliage and skin tones – but all with a soot-and-whitewash high-contrast effect. And you could shoot it handheld at reasonable shutter speeds. Nice.
Sure, you had to learn to load your 35mm camera in complete darkness, but otherwise, Kodak’s High Speed Infrared was downright convenient compared to the other films that came later. On the downside, I found exposure was downright unpredictable – I ended up with many films with thin unprintable negs, and others blown out so dense they were also useless.
I later tried Ilford’s SFX film when it first came out, and discovered that a red filter left it looking a bit too much like ordinary black and white film. A little more research showed I should have been using an R72 “black” filter to get the proper results. So with an SLR you need a tripod to compose the image first, and then put the filter on to shoot – and since the effective ISO is around 6, you need that tripod anyway.
The same applied to the Maco IR720 and IR820, and Rollei Infrared films that came later. And I found you did get a strong, contrasty effect, with black skies and bright trees, but without the “glow” of the Kodak stuff – which is gone a few years now. Ilford’s SFX is still alive and well, and I used some to good effect a couple of summers ago in the Hasselblad.
Then there was Kodak’s colour infrared film – Ektachrome Infrared (EIR), which also required loading and handling the film cartridge in complete darkness. Again, this film was really intended for the scientific/military community, but with a deep yellow filter it delivered strong blue skies with magenta foliage. Red things appeared yellow. People looked ghostly. It would have been a lot more fun if it wasn’t so shockingly expensive to use.
Once the science guys were all using infrared sensing video and digital cameras, EIR disappeared.
So that brings us to digital. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when guys with D70’s and 20D’s were revelling in the delights of shooting infrared. All you needed was that R72 “black” filter and a tripod. In bright sunlight, I recall exposures of around a quarter second. A bit of work in Photoshop, and you had an honest-to-goodness black and white infrared photograph.
In fact, excessive infrared sensitivity was a real problem with early DSLRs. I have a Kodak DCS420 (your basic 1.5 megapixel $13,000 camera – fortunately I didn’t buy it new) that I discovered would bleed magenta over the occasional photo – a strong IR-cut filter seemed to solve the problem. I can’t even use that camera anymore, because I don’t have any way to read the removable hard drive.
A few years ago, heading up north to cottage country, I decided to bring along my “black” filters, to go with a D200 in the bag, to see how the lakes and trees would look in infrared.
I just about gave up. With the ISO hoisted to 800, I still needed a ten second exposure in bright sunlight. The long exposures were noisy, and clouds drifted in the sky and branches waved blurry in the wind.
I could only conclude that the newer wave of cameras was less sensitive to IR than their predecessors.
Some months ago, I decided to prove this theory – since I had four cameras handy. I used the R72 filter, 400 ISO, F8, and a 1.3 second exposure on an overcast day – which is what a D700 needed to come up with a decent exposure. But the D200 was several stops too dark (aha!). A Pentax K-x seemed to agree with the D700, and an old Canon G2 seemed about a stop brighter overall. So, your mileage does vary, after all.
But that brings us back to the title of this posting. Is genuine infrared photography dead and pointless? Why bother with the tripods, black filters and long grainy exposures, if you can just fake it?
While we use filters and/or special film to record light wavelengths our eyes cannot see, we do have to translate what the film or sensor sees into tones, shades or colours that we can see. So, it’s not really an infrared image in the end, is it?
If all we truly want are white trees, black skies, and high contrast – then why not just process a digital file to get that result? I gave it a try with several images, trying to make a passable “infrared looking” black and white, or colour image. I got close. If people think it was shot in IR, then so much the better.
I’ve found it doesn’t take too much “photoshopping” on regular colour landscapes to shift blue skies to teal, and yellow or green foliage to magenta to get a “faux infrared” look.
“Wait…that’s fake”, you say. And I agree.
A real, honest to goodness infrared image has a beauty and grace that can’t be faked by colourizing a regular digital image. Infrared, after all, is actually a colour the human eye can’t see. If we could add infrared to our vision palette, we probably wouldn’t think of trees as being green. They are so much brighter and vivid in the infrared world.
I think the reason infrared landscape photography has staying power isn’t just because it’s a neat “party trick” effect. Infrared makes summer look like it feels, in the same way a polarizing filter makes blue skies look like we think they should.
But most of the films are gone, and putting R72 filters over our digital camera lenses results in slow exposures, even in bright light.
So that brings us to the converted cameras. I’ve converted a few now for customers, buying the appropriate filter to replace the “hot mirror” glass that normally covers the digital sensor. All have been 720 nanometer conversions (the familiar R72). But you can get weaker cutting filter to leak a bit more colour through to the image, and allow more colourful infrared images – assuming you don’t want to go straight to black and white. Stronger 850nm filters are for the purists who don’t care for colour infrared and want the most potent black and white effect.
Another bonus is that by removing the infrared-blocking filter there are no longer two filters trying to block each other out, so sensitivity is close to the original ISO, sometimes even higher. With no filter over the lens, you can focus easily and even hand-hold the camera.
With more and more photographers finding themselves with a perfectly good 8, 10 or 12 megapixel camera sitting idly on a shelf, the infrared conversion option is looking attractive.
And I have to confess it’s looking attractive to me too.
So after all, infrared is not dead, and I’m on the hunt for a digital body to convert. I’ll keep you posted.

The Tokyo Subway Club

•July 15, 2015 • Leave a Comment

When I was first shown the Pentax Q, I think I understood it pretty well. It was a palm-sized gem, a jewel designed to maximize the potential of a compact-camera’s sensor with tiny, but precise interchangeable lenses.
Of course we are continually reminded of the Pentax Auto 110 of the 1970s – an effort to maximize the 110 film camera with high grade optics – but unfortunately hampered by the lack of precision of the plastic 110 film cartridge.
Clearly, I saw the Q targeted at the Japanese urban professional, who spends long hours away from the apartment while commuting, at work, and out with friends. If they want to be a hobby photographer on weekdays with more than just a cellphone, then a quality camera, with lenses, should ideally fit in the shoulder bag along with their laptop. Hence, the Q.
But in North America, we are seldom far from our vehicles, where the empty back seats easily swallow our DSLR camera bags. It’s hard for us to see the Q as a practical camera. It’s next to useless at the kids’ soccer games (like most mirrorless models), and the small sensor gives up a lot in ISO performance and dynamic range.
In a Tokyo cafe, however, out with friends, the Q is a conversation starter. While everyone else poses with phones, this little camera comes out, its tiny lens is exchanged, and its little flash pops up. What’s not to love? And the fact that it was quite expensive didn’t hurt either.
So I could see that the original Q would have a long search for customers outside of big metropolitan areas.
That was four years ago now, and a lot of water has gone under the Q’s bridge. The larger K-01 has come and gone, and the Q has gone through four models, the last two (Q7 and Q-S1) have had slightly larger sensors, apparently because when the original model was launched there were few compact sensors available with full HD video ability.
The last three models were also less costly, but fans appreciate the higher build quality of the original. And those fans, along with the Tokyo Subway Commuters Club, have come to realize the little gem is a lot more capable than originally envisioned.
For instance, like the Micro 4/3 mirrorless universe, there has grown a cottage industry of lens adapters for the Q system. Not only can DSLR Pentax lenses be fitted (even Pentax has their own adapter for that), but you can fit just about any optic you desire, given the very, very short flange distance. Have a fancy for old cine lenses? There are adapters for that: C-mount or D-mount, take your pick.
If you read my earlier post about lens envy, then you’ll know why I took the plunge when the chance came up to buy an original Q body for next to nothing.
When it arrived, I once again was dazzled by how crazy small it is. It really is dainty, and it makes you want to love it.
Of course, a spate of orders quickly followed for adapters: K mount, Nikon mount, and Cine-D. Then there’s the other accessories, cute little cases, caps… I digress.
But given that the Q needs a decent regular lens, I agonized between the highly-regarded 8.5mm normal lens (dubbed the O1 Standard Prime, in Q-speak), and the more versatile, but less optically perfect kit 5-15mm kit zoom (the 02 Standard Zoom). There are low-fi “toy” lenses that don’t really help the Q’s cause, and a decent fish eye. Late comers have been the 06 telephoto zoom, and the very pricey 08 wide zoom. Uncharacteristically for me, I chose the 02 zoom as my proper Q lens for the time being.
But the first gadgets to arrive were the K and F adapters, and so began the quest to exploit the Q’s main asset – which of course, is resolution. “But the Q just has a 12 megapixel sensor,” you say. And you’re right, but those 12 megapixels are stuffed into a very tiny 6.17×4.55mm space (I’ll try to avoid calling it 1/2.3″ because I find that antiquated measurement system misleading). A full-frame DSLR’s sensor is some 30 times larger in area than the Q’s, so if you were to extrapolate those 12MP over the full frame, you’d have a 350 megapixel sensor.
But put your favourite DSLR lens in front of that little Q sensor and you see a major boost in magnification (a “crop factor” of 5.5x, if you want to know). So that 50mm normal is now a decent telephoto, and a 135mm is now equivalent to putting an 800mm monster on your full frame. The trick is to try and get enough quality out of your old lenses to make it worthwhile.
The Q reminds me a bit of the Minox subminiatures I used to mess around with. Those were fun, but I never got super results from mine. Sure, others were able to make big prints, often by using exotic films developed in semi-exotic potions. But even holding the tiny light camera steady was a challenge. It’s hard to jiggle a big SLR with a heavy lens.
Those challenges translate well onto the Q. To get it to work, especially with adapted glass, focus has to be spot on, and just because the built-in stabilizer (SR) works with just about anything, doesn’t mean you can really hand-hold that 135mm and get usable photos.
Proper super tele work requires a good tripod, probably a magnifier hood over that rear lcd, and the wireless remote so you don’t jiggle anything. The little camera is buried in the middle of the rig. But the important thing is there are those out there getting very acceptable results from such unlikely outfits – and the point is that all that birdwatching, or stargazing horsepower comes at a fairly low cost, assuming you can borrow that already-owned telephoto from your DSLR outfit. You don’t have to spend $11,000 to get right in a woodpecker’s face.
I have to say I took my best-yet moon shot with the Q attached to the 300mm telephoto and 2x converter from my Nikon outfit. And I may just go after some birds when up north on vacation.
Trying my best with the D-mount adapter and a host of old 8mm cine lenses, I have to admit defeat. Several good-looking optics vignette badly on the Q – as old 8mm film still has a smaller format than this little thing. Other lenses cover the format, but sadly lack enough sharpness to be worth the fiddling.
I haven’t tried C-mount lenses, but I don’t think I will.
So (drum roll please), I have to conclude the most practical and fun lenses to use on the Q are Pentax’s own Q-intended optics. The 5-15mm zoom offers a nice wide angle, which is hard to find in just about any other adapted optic. It has a leaf shutter, a switchable neutral density filter (to keep apertures wide near f4.0 for best sharpness) and, of course, autofocus. I may have to indulge in a couple more, particularly the 8.5mm f1.9 prime.
But another worthy distraction are the lenses from the old Auto 110. A customer traded me a boxed set of three, along with the original camera and winder for the display shelf. With an adapter and a press fit aperture to help reduce flare, they do have promise. Down side is all three, including the 18mm “wide angle” are all long lenses on the Q.
So Pentax has found a way to stuff most of the gadgetry of a mid-level DSLR into a tiny, tiny package, along with most of the fun. But we can’t have it all. The tiny sensor, and tiny optics do fall short of the image quality we get from our bigger camera and lens outfits. Still, the sharpest Q images do rival what we were getting from the big digitals only a few years ago.
The real fun, however, is the reaction of someone who watches you click the little lens off its little mount, and bayonet on another.
“Wow,” is usually all they say.
Welcome to Tokyo. Get your transit pass ready.

How far have we come?

•January 31, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Every now and then, I get the chance to look over something that was rare and expensive, back in its day.
For example, I’ve just finished sprucing up an old Pentax M42 mount 20mm lens. We may not get too excited at such a modest offering in this day of 14-24mm zooms, but back when it was introduced, it was probably something only one in a thousand Pentax owners might purchase.
So there aren’t many of them out there, for sure.
In 1970 the widest Pentax screw mount lens was a 24mm, unless you count the 17mm fisheye. But the next year the 20mm F4.5 arrived, in the single-coated Super-Takumar version. However the lens I have in hand is the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar version that arrived in 1973 and supposedly lasted until 1979. However, price guides from 1979 no longer show it, as Pentax had switched all premium optics over to the K bayonet mount by then. That guide does show a 20mm F4.0 compact “M” lens for the bayonet cameras. By 1982 ultra-wide 18mm, and uber-wide 15mm offerings were available.
But in the early ‘70s, a super-wide with 94 degrees angle of view on 35mm film was cutting-edge optical technology. If you had one, fellow camera clubbers might mention your name in hushed tones. “He’s got a 20mm.…”
Old magazine ads show the lens available for around $200 in ’73. Nikon’s 20mm F3.5, which was much bulkier in comparison, could be had for around $250.
That might not sound like much, but consider you could buy Pentax’s top-line camera, with a 50mm F1.4 for less than $200.
But, yikes, we’re talking about an F4.5 lens here. And if you’ve never tried such a slow wide angle on an SLR before, you’re in for a rude awakening. For some reason, F4.5 telephotos project a bright snappy viewfinder image, while F4.5 wide angles make you feel the light is coming from a small opening at the far end of a cave.
What I can’t fathom is if the two lenses have such different appearance to the naked eye, how is it the light meter still reads perfectly?

I used to have a Nikon 20mm F4, and while it was a good lens, it was almost impossible to focus manually by sharpness alone. A split image screen was best, but on my old autofocus body, I found I could only get sharp focus by using the AF assist. Eyeballing it left me with quite a few out of focus images, despite the depth of field of a 20mm.
So this equally-ancient Pentax should be even worse at F4.5, and putting it on a 35mm body confirmed that. I suspect most users might have simply focused by using the scale – probably more accurate than viewing through the finder.
The rest of the stats on the SMCT 20mm F4.5 are illuminating (pun intended). There are 11 elements in the design. There’s only five aperture blades in the diaphragm, which is situated eerily close to the back of the lens. It takes a 58mm lens cap, but officially 77mm filters are supposed to attached to the supplied lens hood mount to avoid vignetting. That makes sense, because my newer 20mm 2.8 Nikkor will vignette its corners with a thickish 62mm polarizer mounted.
The Pentax lens hood is also surprisingly complex, having some five main parts and sundry screws. After screwing it on, it allows you to orient its rectangular frame. However, it’s so shallow, it’s doubtful it does much good shading from flare.
This particular lens is unusual in that its barrel and exterior were well worn, with ugly engraving around it from its original institutional owner. But the glass was virtually pristine. Apparently it wasn’t loaned out to anyone who might be rough with it. I’m guessing the photo department had bunches of 28mm’s around, and the odd 24mm too – but that 20mm was the only one they had.
And let’s not forget the mount around which the lens was built – the venerable M42 screw mount. No doubt going with a screw-it-in body mount helped keep costs down for Pentax for many years. But even if a Pentax Spotmatic cost a good bit less than its Nikon contemporary, there’s no denying that Asahi Optical did their very best to compete with the best optics
So if I were to dare to compare this 40 year old lens with something more modern, one contender comes straight to mind, my 21mm F3.4 Pentax Limited.
It’s not really a fair fight, one might argue, in that the newer lens isn’t designed to cover a full frame – and the old one does. But, that being said, Pentax hasn’t seen fit to give us a full-frame digital yet. If we wanted to try the old 20mm on a full-frame sensor, the easiest way would be to adapt it to a Canon 6D or something similar.
One also notes the newer lens has only eight elements, not eleven. But then again, it’s not really as wide a lens as the old one – designed for just 68 degrees on the APS-C sized sensor.
So, even if it’s not a fair fight, let the battle begin.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I took both lenses out for a test on one of the last nice days of fall, before it got cold around here. I used the K-01 mirrorless body, with screw mount adapter, which allowed for easy focus-peaking focus on that slow old F4.5 lens. Both lenses delivered up a few nice looking shots. I tried to see if the old lens would flare badly against the light, but those multi-coatings lived up to their promise. It did well.
Colour issues, distortion weren’t a problem. All images looked quite usable from both lenses, at least on the camera back, and browsing on the computer.
But no, it wasn’t a tie. A close look at details, both distant and close show the newer 21mm wins hands down for sharpness. Check my attached photos.
So, we’ve come a long way since the early ‘70s in lens design? Well, I have nagging thoughts about the fact this wasn’t a fair fight. The old lens can do 94 degrees of coverage. The new one only goes 68 degrees.
A fairer test would be to mount the old optic on a full-frame Canon body, and then use a Pentax 15mm on a crop sensor. At least the angles of view would be similar – but then you’d be battling two sensor types. What would we learn then, I wonder?
Fortunately, that’s not going to happen. The vintage lens has been returned to its owner after getting its clean bill of health, and I don’t have a 15mm Limited handy anyway.
In case you blindly assume that any 40-year old lens will be beaten by a newcomer, I can assure you that isn’t always the case. I’ve tested quite a few vintage moderate wide angles, normals, and telephotos that are just as good as anything made today. The trick, of course, is finding a modern camera that can make use of them.

One of these things is not like the other….

•December 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I once read somewhere that a huge percentage of the world’s merchandise is counterfeit. I suppose the world won’t end if someone has a fake designer purse.

But a counterfeit part in a jet engine? Apparently such things do exist.

The camera world has some counterfeit stuff. But there’s no denying it would be tantamount to impossible to fake a DSLR, or an AF lens.

But from time to time, strange things do crop up.

There was the time someone was peddling supposed “Canon” camera outfits. The “Canon” was a decal applied to a really cheap plastic camera that had the outward appearance of a film SLR, and the innards of a disposable. Well, if you were fooled by that, you might deserve to be swindled.

Some time later we came across a Minolta 35mm point and shoot. It all looked kosher, except the box and packaging. There was no way Minolta marketed something in such shabby packaging. The person who had it bought it overseas. The only thing we could think of was it was an example of “overproduction”. After the Chinese company contracted to build so many thousand Minoltas was done, they made a few thousand “extras” to box up cheaply and sell on the black market. There’s a good chance the internal parts weren’t up to snuff.

But I wasn’t prepared for what I came across the other day. A customer brought in his spare Nikon MH-18a charger because it had stopped working. The light came on, but the battery never charged. He said he bought it while on a trip, and had forgotten the original at home. He said it came from a camera store in the US.

Well, I popped it open, to see if there was some obviously burned out component (I have successfully fixed these before), but what I found surprised me.

Instead of typically well made circuitry, there was a cheap board, hand-soldered with basic parts. Missing was the microprocessor to look after the charging, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

What we had was a counterfeit Nikon charger. Comparing it to the real deal, it weighs a tad less. The markings on the top are slightly less refined. And while the back cover has all kinds of markings, including a serial number, I’ll bet the “Made in Malaysia” ain’t at all true.

This is certainly troublesome. While there are aftermarket chargers and such things that work well enough, you usually have a company name to fall back on. If this thing were to short-circuit and burst into flames and set fire to your home office, who would you blame? Would your insurance company have your back, if they found out you used a knock-off charger that passed no-one’s safety tests?

On a more basic level, the fake charger has none of the fancy circuitry of the real thing. Can you really trust it to look after your expensive Lithium Ion batteries charging needs?

If it shortened your battery life, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

But as for me, I’d be freaked out the thing was plugged into my wall unattended.


Solar eclipse October 23, 2014

•November 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment
Here's what it looked like from Tecumseh Road.

Here’s what it looked like from Tecumseh Road.

Solar eclipses are rare enough events on planet earth. Rarer still is being in the right location to actually see something – and even then you have to have the luck to not have the whole thing hidden behind cloud. I remember being in high school when we were given severe warnings for several days about not looking up at the sun during a lunchtime partial eclipse. When the celestial event finally happened, there was no chance of anyone burning out their eyeballs since it was hopelessly overcast.

Still, just the other day, October 23, 2014, we were promised a glimpse of a solar eclipse right here in southwestern Ontario, provided the weather cooperated. I realized that since it was occurring just before sunset I might have a chance of spotting it right from out front of the store, and maybe even getting a photograph.

Sure enough, the sun was blazing in a clear sky, although there were some clouds near the horizon. So I quickly set up an impromptu rig that might just do the job. The sun might be big, but since it’s nearly 150,000 kilometers away, I put my 2x converter (seldom used) on my 300mm F4. Then on the front went an ND100 filter that was handy, and I added a polarizer to drop down another couple of stops.

I balanced the whole rig on a monopod and aimed at the sun using live view. Hmmm, live view to the rescue – hardly ever use that on my DSLR, but I didn’t want to look directly into the camera. Even with all the filtration, I had the ISO dropped down to -1, so ISO100, and then shot at 1/8000th of a second at F22.

Knowing that with the sun up well above the horizon, there was no chance of neatly composing it against a cool terrestrial backdrop. This was more astro photography than landscape photography. Still, the photo definitely rewarded my meagre efforts, and limited time to get the shot.

What astonished me was the sunspots and the massive solar storm that clearly came through even as the moon took its bite out of the right size of the solar disc.

Hopes to take a few more shots faded as the moon made its progress to nearly 1/3 coverage because the sun descended into that growing cloud bank.

Now we can look ahead to August 18, 2017 when a total eclipse will be visible from Tennessee and other American states, and Southern Ontario will get a good partial view. Just hope for clear weather!

Are camera makers clueless?

•June 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Are the camera makers clueless?
If memory serves, it was January 2007 when Steve Jobs invented the 21st century (in the way that Henry Ford invented/shaped the 20th) when he pulled the first iPhone out of his pocket – and later the iPod Touch.
Sure, the idea of a pocket computer/phone that had the internet on board, as well as a jukebox, video player, and games machine was astounding. Oh, and there was a camera there too.
But to me, one of the more intriguing concepts was that it allowed the idea of “apps” – small downloadable programs that could expand its versatility. Most were inexpensive. Many were free.
Want to know the moon phases? There’s an app for that. Want a list of hundreds of mixed drink recipes at your fingertips? Ditto. Want to turn the screen into a flashlight? Right.
It didn’t take me long to look at the screen on the back of my DSLR and see where things would be going.
Obviously, the camera designers would clue into this great idea of mini applications to expand the usefulness of the DSLR. It was only a matter of time.
And yet, here we are, seven years on.
It has been said that Japanese technology giants are only really comfortable with designing, building, and marketing hardware and electronics. Software, they don’t really get.
Which is why the iPod pocket jukebox was designed in California, not Tokyo, apparently.
You might wonder what purpose we might have for “apps” for our cameras. Well, let’s take a look into the future that didn’t happen.
First off, I hear many, many complaints about the ridiculous complexity of current digital cameras. Because it’s easy to load firmware into a camera, there are pages and pages of menu items and customizable options that only the truly insane would find use for them all. But heaven forbid a camera be brought to market missing some small option or feature – the howls of indignation all over the internet forums will bury its sales (even if very, very few photographers will ever need it).
So let’s imagine a basic model DSLR that ships without exposure bracketing, or an HDR mode, or, ahem, white balance bracketing (hands up anyone who has used that feature in the last decade), and a whole bunch of other techie stuff that beginners don’t understand or use.
In fact, as it comes out of the box, it might only shoot JPEGs.
But that’s okay, because you plug it into your desktop, laptop, or tablet and log onto the company’s website. Some of the apps are free, like RAW capability. Maybe a basic bracketing app costs $1.99. Maybe a fancy one costs $5.99.
If you don’t download the 15 “scene” programs, then you never have to trip over them in the menus. If you never want to bother with multi exposures, or interval timers, then don’t download the apps – simple as that.
Higher end bodies might allow more powerful apps. If the built-in noise reduction is inadequate, then maybe you don’t mind a sophisticated NR app that takes 20 seconds to process each image. Video fanatics might download a package with level meters for audio, and other goodies. The sky’s the limit.
I can even imagine a “hairshirt” app that disables every goofy feature and function on the camera body, leaving you with manual exposure, spot metering, and manual ISO selection. I can see photography teachers setting up a whole classroom of cameras that way. Plug your camera back into your computer to get back all the hidden features.
I know camera manufacturers tried something similar in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Minolta had their “program cards” that added functions to some of their 35mm SLR bodies. Canon had a barcode reader that copied a code from a book of subject programs and transferred it to your camera. As I recall, there were at least two programs to photograph stained glass windows, maybe three for fireworks. Sheesh.
Of course, those were a bit of a cheat. The barcode wasn’t actual software, and I don’t think Minolta’s cards were any more than codes to activate functions the camera already had on board. The feature was short-lived, in any case. Point and shoot cameras lured away those who didn’t understand shutter speeds and apertures, and serious photographers didn’t use subject programs anyway.
But today, one can make a real case for the camera “app”. Firstly, they could be real software to work within the camera’s operating system and firmware. Others might be simply keys to unlock or hide built-in features. And secondly, today’s cameras really are burdened with far too many seldom used features. I mean, really, when’s the last time you plugged your DSLR directly into your printer?
And if you don’t ever play around with the “filters” to mess around colours and textures on your photos, then you don’t have to download that package either.
Then there’s also the aftermarket. Clever software guys would jump at the chance to invent features that would expand our cameras beyond their current purposes.
Camera manufacturers would perhaps also be able to keep older models “fresh” for a while longer. If a model seems like yesterday’s news, but the replacement is still a year away, maybe a couple of clever new apps might light a new fire under it.
If an app doesn’t live up to its promise, or runs too slowly to please everyone – then the app gets the blame, not the camera. And the update is on its way.
It all makes perfect sense to me. And yet, seven years on, no one has really tried such a concept. Sure Nikon and Samsung have a couple of compacts that run on Android, and can make use of photography specific apps. But really, they are intended to try and keep the compact camera relevant in a smartphone world. You know, where people take snapshots and need to upload them to their social media right away.
So what am I missing here? Why hasn’t it happened? I suppose one possibility is the potential sluggishness of an operating system that might take a while to boot, and loads the apps later. So the camera would have to be left in “sleep” mode to avoid a three-minute restart, I guess.
You know darn well the camera designers have been debating these very points. It can’t not have occurred to them, ever.
No, I think they’re still stuck on the business model where they design optics, mechanics, and electronics, and it all comes in the box. If you want more, you have to buy the next box.
And they’re all still trying to party like it’s 1999.

Mirrorless musings

•June 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“So waddaya takin’ pictures of?”
As the preposition dangles, the chills run down my spine.
Despite my best efforts to enjoy a quiet morning in the woods, the big camera and lens on the tall tripod has drawn in another gawker, like a moth to a flame.
I politely tell him I like the look of the trees, or something like that. Not that he really heard my response, as he goes on to tell me about how he wants to take up photography some day, and how he has a brother-in-law who’s a “professional photographer” and has “lots of cameras”. And then he quizzes why I’m using a Nikon because his brother-in-law said Canon is the best….”
I wish I could disappear.
That perhaps explains why camera design is at a bit of a crossroads these days. For a decade now, the Digital SLR has been top of the food chain, photography wise, as film cameras faded from prominence. It’s been obvious to all, that if you were truly serious about photography, you needed a DSLR.
The latest challenger to that absurd notion is the mirrorless camera concept. Take away that clattery moving mirror inside the camera and go naked – just a lens in front of a sensor, with the screen on the back to guide the way (or maybe a tiny TV screen finder when you can’t see the screen in bright surroundings), but if you can make it small and discreet enough, you just might get quality photos from something stealthy – and less likely to get unwanted attention.
Technically, the Epson R-D1 from my previous posting was the first “mirrorless” camera with interchangeable lenses. But as simply a digital version of the tried and true rangefinder, it isn’t quite the same thing. Rangefinders are difficult to make, and have a limited range of lenses by nature. No, a mirrorless camera can deliver an image with just about anything optical mounted in front.
Mirrorless, of course, is a horrible name, describing more what the camera lacks, rather than what it does. Other rather poor monickers include MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera), EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens), or CSC (compact system camera). None seem right.
The first salvo in the mirrorless battle came from Olympus, I believe, when they launched their nifty, retro-styled “Pen” cameras – re-inventing the flagging fortunes of their “four-thirds” sized sensor by putting it into a truly smaller package, without the mirror.
I admit to being intrigued, although I had to ask myself “what’s it for?” A question I still haven’t properly answered.
Samsung and Sony brought out mirrorless bodies with the larger APS-C (1.5x crop) sensors, but like the Olympus, the few I saw in use were wedded to various adapters, so vintage manual focus SLR lenses could be fitted. Putting even a 50mm lens on a Micro 4/3 body, or a Sony Nex seemed clumsy and self-defeating. After all, why buy a compact body only to bulk it back up?
Still, the owners looked like they were having fun.
And as for myself, having had to say goodbye to the fun of the Epson R-D1, knowing I’d never justify a collection of M-mount lenses for it, I needed something novel and interesting to get me through a harsh winter.
I noticed that Pentax had some “demo” K-01 bodies on clearance. Now that was interesting. I’d seen but one K-01 some months before and decided I did like the idea – even if I knew I could never justify bringing any in for store stock. It was too “unique” a concept for the Windsor market to embrace – especially at nearly $900 with lens.
Still, I had the chance to delve into the mirrorless compact world – and I had my choice of colour.
If you aren’t familiar with the K-01, don’t be hard on yourself. Its chunky shape, and industrial design cues didn’t endear it to the retro-leaning mirrorless fans out there.
But I have to say I did get where Pentax was going with the K-01. They evidently didn’t want to release a new range of lenses for a skinny compact body – especially when many mirrorless users out there are adding adapters and using vintage lenses anyway. So Pentax just built the camera around a full-sized, full depth K-mount, and all their existing lenses fit and were ready to go. Vintage K-mount lenses worked too, somewhat. And even ancient M-42 screw mount optics can thread into an officially sanctioned adapter.
A bonus of the chunkier body was allowing room for a full-sized DSLR battery (same one the K5 and K3 Pentaxes use).
But you have to acknowledge the K-01 was trying to swim against the current. If mirrorless was about jewel-like overcoat-pocked sized cameras with 1960’s styling, the K-01 wasn’t that.
Its styling reminds me of a French Lip chronograph watch from the early ’70s. Purposeful, well-made, and in-your-face eccentric. I do like it.
So I ordered one in white and black. I drive a white car with black trim. My dog is white with black spots. My vintage Seiko 6138 has the “panda” white dial with black sub-dials. So why not?
Much was made of the lego-like red and green buttons that adorn the top of the K-01 (again, Lip chronograph). Frankly, I’d have made them even bigger and more obvious. But I do love the mode dial and input wheel – blocks of solid aluminum. When you get an industrial designer involved in a project, they refuse to skimp on materials.
Then there was the attraction of indulging in Pentax’s line of “pancake” prime lenses. The camera shipped with the ultra-tiny 40mm f2.8 XS – apparently the world’s thinnest interchangeable lens. I tried a 16-45mm zoom, but found it unwieldy. If I wanted big, I’d use my SLR. But I picked up a 21mm f3.2 Limited to suit it better. In case you’ve never seen one up close, one of the Limited series features is all-metal construction, from the lens cap to the mount. Take that, Canon and Nikon.
I also added a 50mm f2.0 manual focus K-A lens, and a Ricoh XR 135mm 2.8, which tested out to be nice and sharp on the K-01. A bonus, of course, is that all lenses can take advantage of the built-in sensor-shift stabilizer. If I get around to having fun with my old 50mm 1.4 SMCT screw mount, it too will be stabilized.
I forgot to mention that after the demise of my mini-DV camcorder, I figured the Pentax would also be fun for high-def video, especially since you can run it fully manually, and also plug in a microphone.
Then just as I was starting to find ways to take the Pentax seriously, I tried out a Sony Nex 5n – also a mirrorless based on the 16mp sensor. Opening raw files from each, you could tweak them side by side to make them look identical. The Pentax advantage was in the prime lenses, which were noticeably sharper than the 18-55mm kit lens the Sony came with.
The Sony was tiny by comparison, and was able to be stuffed into my jacket pocket. The screen also tilts on the Sony, which proved handy. But the menus and instructions for the Sony were admittedly dismal – designed by someone who doesn’t understand cameras or photography, apparently. The Nex 5n could also accept a screw in electronic finder in place of the flash, but I didn’t have one to try.
I did enjoy the manual focus on the Sony (after I finally found it in the menu system). Touching the focus ring immediately brought up a magnified box with focus peaking making it easy to see best focus. Then touching the shutter button got you back to a full-frame view. It’s easier to use than describe.
The K-01 works similarly, except you have to poke the centre control button to magnify. If you haven’t seen “focus peaking” in action, you should try it. Despite decent autofocus, I find manual focusing these mirrorless cameras is more fun. And yes, the Pentax menus and controls are excellent and sensible.
So, (drum roll please) is this the future of photography, and the beginning of the end of the traditional DSLR?
Well, despite a loud and aggressive minority extolling the virtues of the mirrorless concept, the fact is they haven’t set the world on fire, sales wise. The K-01 is no more, and doesn’t appear to have a successor on the horizon. Canon fans have already seen the EOS M come and go from the North American market – although newer versions limp on in Asia, apparently. Nikon has the One series, built around a sensor even smaller than Micro 4/3, but appeal remains limited, despite some interesting specs. Pentax also has their Q series, built around a very small sensor indeed, but I have a hard time imagining a market for it, outside those who ride the Tokyo subway.
Having ditched DSLRs altogether, Olympus is committed to the mirrorless concept now, as is Panasonic. And Fuji have some very interesting cameras, partly because they are also so very pretty.
So mirrorless is everywhere, and yet nowhere. Because at the end of the day, I can’t really see anyone preferring one to take photos of their kid’s soccer games …. or trying to get a good shot of those nesting eagles. And there’s no way a pro photographer at the sidelines of the Olympic games will be using anything other than a DLSR for some time to come.
No, mirrorless is a lot of fun for the “urban hipster”. Taking the place of the Canonet rangefinder, or the Rolleiflex TLR, the ability to shoot quietly, even at waist level at odd angles is quite cool, especially when you don’t need or want a telephoto lens.
I’m going to continue having fun with the K-01. I remain amazed that the camera and four lenses all fits into a tiny shoulder bag, and there’s still room for an external microphone and the battery charger.
There’s no denying that when the rubber meets the road, the DSLR, full-frame or otherwise, is the better instrument for action with tele lenses, or for carefully watching for that perfect facial expression on the optical focusing screen.
But if the mirrorless concept is about using a camera in a different way, to take different photos than you might take with your DSLR – and have fun while doing so – then it’s not hard to see the attraction.
And if they attract fewer gawkers, so much the better.