By David Rasnake and Allison Johnson
With Photokina behind us and the holiday shopping season just around the corner, most of the new products that we'll see on retailer shelves in 2008 are already on the table. And the easiest place to see them all right before holiday buying gets into full swing was at last week's 2008 PDN PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo.
Held October 23 through 25 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, this year's PhotoPlus provided an important connecting link in the show cycle between the Photokina show in September and the premier U.S. trade shows (CES and PMA) slated for early 2009. Although it's always a smaller happening overall than these headline industry events, PhotoPlus provided an ideal venue for some off-the-record conversations about what to look for in 2009. While we can't share what's being talked about behind closed doors (yet), it doesn't look like a volatile worldwide economy will put a damper on aggressive new development from the big players in the 2009 model cycle.
Unlike most of the press/industry centered shows that we attend throughout the year, PhotoPlus brings out a collection of attendees – from student photographers to working pros to general consumers – that could only be described as "eclectic." Catering to this mixed market, the major equipment manufacturers devote large portions of their time and booth space at PhotoPlus to training sessions and presentations from some of the most noteworthy photographers and technologists in the industry.
DCR editor David Rasnake spent the end of the week cruising the show floor at PhotoPlus, and while there wasn't a critical mass of new product announcements from the big manufacturers to warrant daily show coverage, we did pick up a few buzz-worthy tidbits while in New York.
Olympus floats E-520 dive housing, palm-sized SP-565 UZ
Not surprisingly, Olympus didn't have its new Micro Four Thirds concept seen at Photokina on display; we're betting the development that's going on here will continue to be shrouded in secrecy until PMA at the earliest. Even without this highly anticipated system cameras to entice, however, Olympus earned our unofficial award for coolest looking product of the show with their latest underwater housing.
This visually arresting waterproof shell is capable of containing an E-520 DSLR and mounted lens, providing complete control of the camera via a complex network of back-panel push buttons.
Olympus's recent marketing has played up the go anywhere nature of their system cameras, and a new housing – especially one this rugged and, from a functional standpoint, well thought-out – is a logical continuation of the company's efforts.
As with most dive-grade housings, the rule of thumb on cost in this case is if you have to ask, you can't afford it. The folks at Olympus are floating a retail price of around $1200 for the body housing, with an additional cost for the interchangeable lens-specific shells. The fact that the shell with appropriate accouterments will likely run to three times the cost of the camera system it contains may weed out all but the most dedicated hobbyists, but as an intergrated underwater shooting system, the Olympus's thoughtful touches make it one of the best we've seen.
On a related note, we also got some time with samples of Olympus's new compact ultrazoom, the SP-565 UZ.
Built on the same functional platform that powered the powerful SP-570, the amount of miniaturization that has gone on to produce the latest model impresses. As these hands-on shots show, the SP-565's size is closer to what we've come to expect from a large compact camera than a 20x ultrazoom.
Although it's still not as pocketable as something like Panasonic's TZ5, for instance, it's looking like the latest SP, with a seriously advanced set of features, is finally small enough to start giving the compact ultrazoom segment a run for its money.
Pentax DA* 55mm f/1.4 SDM hands-on preview
We got a glimpse at Pentax's new DA* 55mm f/1.4 SDM under glass last month at Photokina, but our first opportunity to handle the lens came this week at PhotoPlus.
Compared to the small and lightly built FA 50mm f/1.4 that's been unchanged in Pentax's stable since the pre-digital days, the new 55mm is significantly larger, though its composite construction keeps weight under control.
Build quality is in keeping with other new plastic-shell DA* lenses, and if it's not exactly as premium as the alloy heavyweights featured in the 200-300mm segment of Pentax's pro glass range, it's still a relatively robust lens.
The focus ring is amply large and smooth, providing precise control and switchless AF to MF transitions via the DA* system's automatic clutch. Mounting the lens's KAF3 connection up to a K20D, the lens feels balanced and handles nicely. There's a slight whirr when focusing courtesy of the system's near-silent SDM AF motor. But for those who've spent years on the current 50mm's loud and jerky body-driven AF, the new focus drive system is lightyears ahead of its predecessor – bringing Pentax's normal perspective optic into the era of modern focus control.
It's not every day that a manufacturer updates staple glass like the venerable 50mm f/1.4 optic that's in just about every lens maker's lineup. For all of its flaws (severe chromatic aberration due to a lack of digital-specific coatings tops the list), the FA 50mm f/1.4 remains a favorite of many Pentaxians. Hence, we'll be excited to see how this new replacement – which bucks long-running trends in its slightly longer 55mm focal length – compares to its own esteemed legacy, as well as some sharp competition.
Lowepro goes incognito with Classified AW series
In reviewing camera gear bags, our opinion more than once has been that Lowepro makes some of the most highly functional DSLR carriers on the market – but also, unfortunately, some of the most conspicuous. Brightly colored nylon shells, an array of straps and loops, and awkwardly shaped shells all but scream "there's something expensive in here" to a sharp-eyed thief.
Lowepro's been actively involved in addressing this concern of late, and during PhotoPlus we got our first look at Lowepro's latest security-conscious camera carrying solutions: the Classified AW series.
Coming in four sizes and two understated colors (black and "sepia"), the Classified series may just be the ticket for photojournalists, urban photographers, even wedding shooters looking for a full-function, purpose-designed equipment caddy that's a little more subtle.
The new Classified bags retain all of the functionality we've come to expect from Lowepro – copious pockets, lots of attachment points, and a laptop sleeve in the largest variety – but do so in a package that looks more like a piece of luggage than a traditional photo equipment bag.
Fit and finish is excellent, and with their "AW" (which stands for "all weather") designation, the Classified bags also sport tethered rain covers that can be deployed when the weather turns wet.
Additionally, the manufacturer had several other recent releases on display, including their 95-percent recycled Terraclime shoulder bags and their female-focused Luxe series of pouches for compact cameras.
Overall, Lowepro is showing that it knows how to think outside the very solid box it's built with the majority of its bag designs – how to carry over what works from previous efforts into packages that are more inconspicuous, more style conscious, or more environmentally friendly. We can't wait to put some review units through their paces, so stay tuned for more on this front in the near term.
Plug-in Panoply: Imagenomic demos Portraiture 2 Beta
With its heavy emphasis on students, educators, and shooting pros, PhotoPlus is a logical venue for software companies to talk up their latest in the image editing space. We sampled several new and updated software offerings on the show floor, ranging from Adobe's latest on the platform end to plug-ins designed to automate the creation of everything from shallow depth of field to instant-camera effects in images.
On the plug-in side, one of the more noteworthy updates seen at the show came from Imagenomic, well known in the world in wedding/portrait world for their skin-smoothing Portraiture retouching tool. The basic engine behind the company's newly launched Portraiture 2 is the same as in the original version, though you'll find few users who will complain about that. Changes for round two have mostly come on the interface and integration sides, with a very polished console look that matches current Adobe control surfaces well, as well as support for both Lightroom and Aperture in addition to Photoshop.
Uniquely, Portraiture now provides a full-time live preview system for your presets: if you've created a processing preset in the system, the impact of applying that combinations of settings to the current image in your workspace can be seen in real time via a series of scalable thumbnails in the drop-down menu.
Portraiture 2 preset preview function
This sort of background rendering work, albeit at thumbnail sizes, undoubtedly puts an added load on the processor, though the relatively straightforward setup used to demo the system didn't appear to be straining to keep up. On a related note, advanced thread controls in the tool provide better multi-core/multi-processor support and allow shooters to limit the number of threads being used by Portraiture if desired.
Portraiture 2 is in the public beta phase at this point, meaning that if you're a Portraiture user you can take the updated retouching plug-in for a test drive at your leisure. Head over to the Imagenomic website for the download.
Sony builds A900's street cred with pro photographer program
Following on the heels of the launch of its inaugural full-frame professional DSLR, Sony has introduced its first professional photography program at PhotoPlus. Top-tier pro shooters Andy Katz, David McLain, Christina Mittermeier, Brian Smith, and Matthew Jordan Smith each used Sony's new Alpha DSLR-A900 to capture images on display at the Javits Center during the show.
Sony also had members of its pro team on hand to show off and discuss their work as well as their experiences with the A900 during the expo.
Sony pro Christina Mittermeir presents at PhotoPlus 2008
Overall, Sony seems to be taking another step toward asserting itself as a force in the world of professional photography by seeking this endorsement. Only time will tell whether this latest confirmation of the A900's capabilities as a professional system will be enough to draw shooters away from Canon and Nikon in large numbers, however.
Although Sony has not released a photo catalog of images displayed in the gallery, a press release and more information regarding the pro program can be found at the manufacturer's PhotoPlus 2008 mini-site.