Round Up: Photokina 2008 Top Five

by Reads (39)

So that’s it: the halls are dark, the booths are being disassembled and shipped out as we speak, and DCR has returned home from Cologne with a few new product announcements and some hands-on time to show for Photokina 2008.

Photokina 2008

Photokina is an interesting thing: on the one hand, the show’s longevity has earned it a position of unrivaled prominence in our industry. On the other, shortening product development cycles and greater emphasis on both American and Asian markets have left the show behind in some ways. There’s still plenty of new tech on display in Cologne every other year, but the rise of other annual photo-centric events – PMA, especially – means fewer and fewer products are held for a Photokina launch these days.

If the ground in the imaging industry is shifting, leaving shows like Photokina in a different position than they once held, this year’s expo highlighted the fact that Cologne is still good for its share of revolutionary photographic news. With that in mind, here are five devices, concepts, and technologies debuted at Photokina 2008 that I believe are poised to change the industry. In no particular order, they are…

1. Micro Four Thirds and the Panasonic G1
Panasonic stole the show this year with all of the hoopla surrounding their latest interchangeable lens camera and the first model utilizing the Panasonic/Olympus developed Micro Four Thirds standard. At the show itself, and in the city of Cologne generally, you were rarely more than 100 yards away from a billboard ad touting the G1’s compactness.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

That an electronics conglomerate like Panasonic was able to interpose themselves to this degree at the premier event for the world’s imaging companies – and one that places much emphasis on the storied histories of the companies represented there besides – is impressive in its own right. And it suggests that Panasonic may really have a good thing going with the G1.

After shooting with the new Lumix for a day while in Cologne, I was still having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that the G1 is the first Micro Four Thirds camera ever: while final performance and image quality evaluations with a production version will ultimately tell the tale, for a device that treads this much new ground, the G1 seems to be amazingly polished and bug free. The point being that Panasonic – a relatively recent entry into the camera world – has done something unique in developing a compact full-time live view camera with interchangeable lenses, but also done so in a form that has a good shot, at least, at being commercially viable. In use, the G1 feels like a “real camera” that’s ready to take out and shoot with, rather than an engineering exercise in need of serious refinement.

If you were hoping that Micro Four Thirds would bring DSLR image quality to cameras that are truly pocket-size, what’s on the horizon from Olympus is perhaps even more promising. Let’s hope that the camera that actually makes it to market is anywhere close to what was shown on Tuesday.

2. The Leica S2
After getting double tipped on this one, we weren’t exactly stunned when Leica officially took the wraps off of its new S2 professional system camera on Tuesday. While there’s very little from a technological standpoint in this 37.5 megapixel camera that’s likely to revolutionize digital imaging for general consumers in the near term, the S2 represents a surprising turn in the professional camera market that most of us covering the imaging industry said we’d have to see to believe.

Leica S2

As I see it, the S2 has the potential to change the face of professional cameras in the long term insofar as it’s at once conventionally familiar and radically unique. The “conventional” side of the S2 equation is particularly important in this case: to put the issue somewhat coarsely, Leica has a reputation for being more than a bit obtuse in their overall design philosophy. No one questions the company’s ability to build cameras and, even more so, lenses capable of phenomenal imaging performance, but their equipment hasn’t tended to have the basic, mainstream appeal of Canon and Nikon gear in the professional market (the M system’s long-running appeal as a compact photojournalist’s tool partially excepted).

Which is what makes the S2 so surprising. Here’s a device that’s roughly the same size and shape as one of the Japanese professional system cameras. It has auto focus. It has a straightforward control arrangement. In short, it’s a camera that even those of us who have never entirely understood the Leica “thing” can find familiar and appealing, and could potentially see ourselves using (if we could afford its five-digit price, that is). The difference between this camera and the bizarre S1 that preceeded it more than a decade ago is night and day. For a Leica, the S2 is just so…normal.

But Leica wouldn’t be Leica without doing something different, and in the case of the S2, that something different involves serving up medium-format digital system resolution and a larger-than-full-frame imager in a 35mm-sized body, courtesy of a Kodak-built 37.5 megapixel, 30x45mm CCD.

So does the Leica S2 push the likes of Canon and Nikon to respond? Probably not immediately in my opinion. The thought that any of the companies currently making full-frame DSLRs would show even a prototype of a larger-than-full-frame camera next year seems pretty remote, and the problem of developing optics for such a system may yet keep it out of the mainstream for a long time. But Leica has entered uncharted territory with the S2, both in making it accessible from a form and function perspective, and in pushing the limits of DSLR development.

3. Nikon D90 and Canon EOS 5D Mark II movie modes
We all knew it would only be a matter of time on this, before DSLRs could shoot video. Nikon did it first a few weeks back with the video-capable D90, and Canon followed up almost immediately with the launch of the long-awaited EOS 5D Mark II. I’ve spent a few minutes shooting some footage with the D90 that looks pretty impressive all around for general video shooting, and Canon’s upper-tier 5D has already shown that its 1080p movie capture has really professional potential.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

There will be limitations to overcome along the way: what we’ve seen from these two cameras already suggests that more work is going to be needed to smooth out video compression issues, handle audio more smoothly, and develop AF systems that work quickly and quietly. The challenges to moving this technology from its current position of market entry novelty to one of mainstream acceptance are clearly before us.

One solution on the horizon that claims to respond to each of these concerns is the second wave of Micro Four Thirds cameras. Panasonic showed off an under-glass prototype of the follow-up to the G1, which the manufacturer claims will offer HD video and fast auto focus courtesy of the camera’s well-tuned contrast detection AF system and a newly designed lens promising near-silent focusing. Although the Olympus concept is clearly further from production, there were murmurs, at least, about video in the forthcoming camera from this camp as well.

Whatever happens, it’s obvious at this point that a threshold has been crossed and proof of concept – and of market interest – established. The only strange occurrence on this front from my perspective is that the one manufacturer that seems to possess the ideal combination of resources to devise a video implementation, Sony, has been curiously quiet about its intentions in this market. Looking forward, an aggressive move from the company in this direction (video in every new Alpha model?) might well be the most unsurprising surprise of early 2009.

4. The Sigma DP2
This one probably raised more than a few eyebrows. Good. Now that I have your attention, here’s why, in a single word, I think the DP2 – light update to the generally disappointing DP1 – deserves a place on this list: perseverance.

Sigma DP2

Ignore the marketing hype surrounding the latest soft technologies. In the compact camera world, large-sensor cameras are the future, the bridge between small-camera form factors and big-camera image quality. At the moment, we’re being offered up 12 and 14 megapixel compact cameras that, due to the messy, compressed images produced by their tiny sensors, don’t offer much more truly usable resolution than a clean 6 megapixel camera. Cramming More Megapixels onto a same-size sensor is relatively easy; figuring out how to fit a significantly larger sensor into a same-size body is hard.

For all of its disappointments, the DP1 was the first, and in many ways still the only, camera to face the challenges head-on, offering an APS-C imager in a fixed-lens pocket camera. The Micro Four Thirds folks partially excepted, other manufacturers have yet to follow suit, but that hasn’t deterred Sigma. And improved processing and a a more flexible lens in the gen-two camera are promising steps in the right direction.

In terms of sales numbers or new products, the DP1 hasn’t changed the compact camera landscape, and it’s unlikely the DP2 will either. But the fact that Sigma is continuing to pump resources into this project sends a clear message that they’re serious about the direction they’re heading. And sooner or later, I’m confident that they’ll hit upon something that the rest of the camera world can’t so easily ignore. For all we know at this point, maybe that something is the DP2.

5. Fujifilm Super CCD EXR sensor
Fujifilm used to build compact cameras with their proprietary Super CCD sensors that were indisputably the best in the world when shooting in low light. The company’s FinePix F31fd has attained almost legendary status in this regard: if you could still find them, people would probably still buy them, even with a recognition of some of the device’s other limitations, for their smooth high-ISO shooting alone.


Somewhere along the way, the company got sidetracked by a push that’s been driving a lot of compact camera manufacturers off course lately: more megapixels. But in one of the more frank and hype-free technical announcements of this year’s show, Fuji is promising to get back on course and do what they have traditionally done best with the development of their new Super CCD EXR sensor.

The latest Super CCD is an innovation insofar as it uses two distinct capture methods – one for high-ISO shooting, and one for high-resolution shooting. The results from each capture can be used independently, or interpolated into a single image. The idea is to make images that preserve dynamic range and resist saturation loss and excessive noise whether you’re shooting at ISO 100 or ISO 1600.

In terms of the technology involved, it’s nice to see Fuji thinking differently again. We’ve been promised a new camera implementing the Super CCD EXR in early 2009, and if what Fuji’s saying about their development process can be believed, the company is looking to get back to basics on its next premium small camera and build a device that shoots quickly, responds dynamically in any light, and otherwise avoids a lot of the nonsense that’s crept into small consumer cameras over time.

Intentional simplicity in an ultracompact? We’re listening…

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