Yes, I know why you do it. Yes, I even know why it’s necessary. But I need to be able to turn it off sometimes.
One of the early promises of HDTVs was the ability to connect a PC and use the TV just like you would use a monitor for your computer. If you bought a really big TV, you could use it as a really big monitor too.
All you had to do was connect your PC to the TV via a VGA/D-Sub input, and voilà! Your PC’s screen appeared on your TV. (You also needed an audio cable.)
But VGA is an analog signal, and it does not carry HDCP (high-definition copy protection) the way digital signals like HDMI and DVI do. And, of course, the picture quality from HDMI and DVI tends to be vastly superior to VGA. Many laptops today — including the one I own — don’t even have VGA ports anymore.
So if we’re connecting our PCs to TVs, we’re doing it via HDMI. We want to send 1080p or even 4K video output from our PCs to our televisions, but our televisions betray us with overscan. And most TV manufacturers won’t let us do anything about it.
So we’re stuck tweaking our PC settings to slightly lower resolutions to fit on the TV screen, and that often means text gets a little distorted…and thus a little hard to read.
There are a few exceptions. Sharp has a “Dot-by-Dot” mode on its TVs, and Samsung has a “Screen Fit” mode as well. But most manufacturers don’t have anything like this built into their TV sets, and it’s difficult to understand why that’s not standard on every TV manufactured today.
For the rest of you, please get on with it. And, for good measure, a firmware update for your existing sets wouldn’t hurt either.
Although I don’t have one myself, I’m pretty excited about the explosion of 4K / Ultra HD televisions in the market.
Why am I excited? There’s almost no programming available in 4K right now, and for what little programming you can find in 4K, it’s difficult for the human eye to detect the difference between Full HD/1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 4K / Ultra HD (3840 x 2160 pixels) from across the room unless the TV is really big…like 80″ or more. And there’s no way my fiancée and I will be getting a TV that big for our townhome apartment.
But I’m still excited about 4K, because a 4K screen can be divided up into four smaller screens, each of them at 1080p.
Because TV sizes are measured diagonally, that means a 50″ 4K TV (like this one, currently $498 at Amazon) can be divided into four sections, each of them equivalent to a 25″ 1080p TV…just slightly larger than the 24″ 1080p TV I have in the office upstairs.
Love, marriage and separate screens
Aside from using the 24″ TV as a PC monitor, I often find myself using it to watch something different from what my better half is watching downstairs. As much as I enjoy her company, the Venn Diagram of our tastes in TV and movies does not overlap much. (She recently introduced me to Happy Valley, a rare show we can enjoy together as soon as I catch up to her.)
But what if we could both watch what we wanted to on the same screen at the same time from the same couch? That’s what 4K can offer.
What about audio?
In the 1989 movie Back to the Future: Part II, Marty McFly, Jr. used voice commands to tell his 2015 TV to display six different channels on the screen at once. (See the section of this clip starting at the 2:10 mark.)
One thing that struck me about this was that the McFlys’ TV set was also playing audio from all six channels at the same time, leading to incoherent noise. I don’t know how Marty Jr. understood anything he was watching!
Presumably, if my bride and I were sharing a screen and a sofa while watching different shows, one thing that wouldn’t make sense to share is the audio from our disparate programs. Of course, one or both of us could wear headphones, but that would at least make it hard for our time together to be all that much of an improvement over our time apart.
Monaural Bluetooth headsets would be an improvement so we’d each at least have one ear free, but I’m not sure if the new 4K sets are sophisticated enough to split the audio from each screen to different sources. Closed captioning could work, depending on the program. Switched at Birth would be a prime candidate for this since so much of it is in subtitled American Sign Language anyway. News and sporting events could be shown with closed captioning too without much sacrifice on my part — after all, if you walk into a sports bar, most if not all of the TVs are on mute.
And then there’s this:
Use the tech you already have
Since we don’t have a 4K TV, and all of our extra money is going into our wedding fund right now, we can use the technology we already have to achieve a similar goal. Each of us has a laptop with Netflix access. So, rather than splitting up a big 4K TV screen, one of us could use our living room TV while the other one watches from the same sofa on a laptop screen with a headset or on mute with closed captioning. Tablets and even smart phones can work for this purpose as well, although you might find yourself squinting at the smaller screens.
Unless a show or movie is about to be dropped, Netflix is not particularly time-sensitive. I can watch my reruns of Law & Order: Special VictimsUnit whenever I choose.But last fall, her Downton Abbey episodes conflicted with my Sunday Night Footballgames. Sporting events are meant to be watched live, and Downton Abbey was one of those shows that could be considered water-cooler television the next day, so we both wanted to watch our shows live, over the air. And this meant being in separate rooms.
Downton Abbey is now over, of course, and there’s nothing scheduled to be on the air on Sunday evenings this fall that has piqued her interest. In hindsight, I have a USB TV tuner that has been sitting in a drawer for a while…I could have plugged this into my laptop along with a little antenna to watch football on mute while she watched Downton Abbey. If such a situation resurfaces, I may have to try that.
Although I have precious little space remaining on my laptop’s SSD, I could even use a little of that space for a free download of MythTV to turn my laptop into a DVR and send the actual recordings to the larger hard drive attached to my Pogoplug.
We’ll have to do a little experimenting to make this work, but I think it can be done. I don’t want television to keep us apart, but I certainly don’t long for 1955, when the entire family had to gather around a single TV with three channels to choose from…and no reruns.
Just turn it off sometimes
Of course, I don’t want to overlook an even lower-tech solution to our problem: turning the TV off altogether and doing something else for real quality time. And we certainly do this sometimes as well…we might go for a walk in the park (weather permitting), play a game, or just go out on a date. Watching too much television — with or without your partner — is obviously not a good thing. But watching TV with your partner by your side is usually better than watching TV alone. And that’s where 4K televisions could make a real difference.
Just about every smartphone owner knows the pain of always looking for an outlet; trying to avoid running out of juice for their all-important devices. I know I have a major problem with this; always fighting with the battery indicator on my LG/Google Nexus 5 and often watching helplessly as the device shuts down at the worst possible time. Just last night I was walking on the indoor track at a nearby park’s fitness center, and I needed some music to keep me going. Unfortunately, due to a dead battery, my phone was not in the mood to work out with me.
Surfing on a sofa with a smartphone seems silly
One of the reasons I struggle is that I use my smartphone a lot at home when there are other devices (my Lenovo Yoga 11S hybrid laptop and my first-generation iPad Mini) that are far better suited to the tasks of web browsing, reading and watching videos at home than my smartphone would ever be. The screens are substantially larger (which better for my eyesight), and I get very good battery life from them.
Yet I often lie back on my sofa and hold my smartphone up to surf, read, etc. But why? Because I didn’t want to miss an incoming text message while my phone was plugged in. As great as my Lenovo Yoga and iPad Mini are as devices, I could neither send nor receive my phone’s text messages on them.
There are two parts to AirDroid: a free app for your Android smartphone and a free companion app for your computer (Windows or Mac) or a web-based client. I even used it on my iPad Mini.
Not only can you see these notifications on your computer, you can respond to them on your computer. You can have entire text message conversations without ever touching your phone.
You can even mirror your phone’s screen with a feature called AirMirror. This is quite useful when you want to see an entire text message thread or if you need to operate a specific app on your phone that doesn’t have an equivalent on your PC. Because I have a Nexus 5, which is always kept up to date with the very latest version of Android, the AirMirror feature is still catching up to my phone. So I haven’t really gotten to test that out yet.
I don’t see myself using it much, but AirDroid also offers convenient wireless file transfers from your computer to your phone.
If you have more Android smartphone users than computers in your household, you might want to pony up $19.99 per year for the premium version of AirDroid, which can support up to six smartphones on a single computer along with some other nifty features that I will probably never use.
Don’t feel left out if you don’t use Android
AirDroid, as it names suggests, is only for Android smartphones. That means no support for iPhones, BlackBerry phones, or Windows phones.
If you have any two of the following: iPhone, iPad or Mac computer, you may be able to use Continuity, a new feature that integrates iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite so you can send text messages, make iPhone calls, and mirror your screen right from your Mac or iPad. It’s essentially the same as AirDroid but for the Apple-centric crowd.
For other users, I’d like to recommend PushBullet instead. PushBullet is like a scaled down version of AirDroid, but it does the most important thing equally well: sending and receiving text messages. PushBullet is compatible with Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS and Windows Phone.
PushBullet can also work as a browser extension for Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera and (coming soon) Safari. The Chrome browser support is indispensable for people who use Chromebooks instead of traditional Windows or Mac computers.
The Big A-Ha
Since you’re not touching your phone while you use one of these apps, you can charge it even in another room and leave the screen off. For me, the screen is always my #1 battery life culprit, and even using the screen while your phone is plugged in prevents it from charging as quickly as it otherwise could.
I can operate my laptop while plugged in even if the battery is totally dead. Some people even operate their laptops plugged in with the battery removed. My smartphone provides me with no such luxury; it won’t even power on while plugged in unless there is enough power in the battery to run it.
Better yet, since my phone is free to charge with the screen off, it’s far more likely to be fully charged when I really need it: away from home and away from power outlets. And that’s a very big deal.
A few months ago, my mother dropped her trusty old Fujifilm Finepix S3100 camera (circa 2004) and broke it for good. She really loved that thing…all 4 megapixels, 1.5-inch LCD screen, 6X zoom, and ISO 250 of it. It had an electronic viewfinder, it was dead-simple to operate, and it felt comfortable in her hand thanks to the deep ergonomic grip. She didn’t care if it took terrible, blurry photos of her retirement party with all her friends present (it was a dark room). That camera just fit her.
Since I take a lot of photos, she enlisted me to help her find a replacement. I have to admit, I really enjoy researching these things, so I was happy to help. Unfortunately, the camera industry let her down.
Smartphone cameras are getting smarter all the time, but…
The first question was whether she needed a dedicated camera at all or whether she could just go out and get a smartphone and use that camera all the time. After all, smartphone cameras keep getting better all the time. But my mother likes to take a lot of photos of birds that visit her feeder, and she got really used to the viewfinder on her old camera. I reminded her that the vast majority of smartphone cameras don’t have optical zoom lenses (yet) or eye-level viewfinders (probably ever), and that convinced her that she really did want a dedicated camera.
Fixed-lens cameras are getting smarter still
Because of the rapid improvements to smartphone camera technology, manufacturers of point-and-shoot cameras have had to raise their photography game to compete, and that’s a wonderful thing. The lines are blurring between fixed-lens (a.k.a. “point-and-shoot”) cameras, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and digital SLRs. The public has started to catch on about the diminishing returns on ever-increasing megapixel counts and absurd zoom ranges, so the trend now is toward larger image sensors and wider-aperture (“faster”) lenses — for better results in low light.
As the LCD screens on compact cameras have gotten larger and brighter, the public’s demand for cameras with eye-level viewfinders has waned. And that means cameras with viewfinders are becoming harder to find. Even long-zoom compact cameras like the Canon PowerShot SX510 HS (with a 30X optical zoom) are ditching the viewfinder to cut down on costs and bulk. (I don’t think this is a good trend; framing your shot through an eye-level viewfinder enables you to hold the camera steadier, and even the biggest, brightest LCD screen is hard to see in bright sunlight. This is especially important in low light and when using a long lens. Even though my Olympus Pen E-PL5 mirrorless camera did not come with a built-in electronic viewfinder, I bought an accessory EVF.)
For the most part, electronic viewfinders have been relegated to cameras with extremely long zoom lenses. One camera that my mother considered was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K…particularly for its viewfinder. But when she saw the way it looked with its 60X zoom lens extended, she bristled at how bulky and awkward it was. Besides, these ridiculous megazoom focal lengths are a bad idea anyway.
So now we had three requirements:
An eye-level electronic viewfinder.
A maximum price of $300, or thereabout.
Getting two out of three would be easy, but getting all three would present a significant challenge. There are lots of fine and pocketable cameras under $300, but they don’t have eye-level viewfinders. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K discussed above had a viewfinder and a low price of $249.99, but it was huge. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC0RX100 Mark III was compact, and it had an innovative pop-up viewfinder, but it also came with a sticker price of $799.99.
And then, miraculously it seemed, I discovered the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1: a pocketable (or purse-able) camera with an electronic viewfinder and a low sticker price of $249.99. It even had an extra large 1/1.7″ image sensor, which gave it an extra stop of ISO flexibility compared with regular fixed-lens cameras. I thought this would be the camera that would make her forget all about her old Fuji.
I read the glowing expert reviews and recommended it to my mom. She bought one, but she’s still missing her old Fuji friend. But why?
Smaller is not always better
There’s an old saying among photographers that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s obviously true: that expensive full-frame dSLR with the massive lenses may be able to take beautiful photos when you have it, but if you find yourself leaving it behind all the time due to the bulk and weight, then it’s not doing you much good. Even the best camera is useless when it sits on a shelf.
But I’m learning that there’s a flipside to this: a camera that trades good ergonomic design for compactness might also get left on the shelf. And that goes double for my mother, who has impaired vision even with her eyeglasses and has endured carpal tunnel surgery on both of her wrists. That might have been why she dropped the old camera in the first place.
The 0.2-inch viewfinder on her new Panasonic is so small that she can’t see out of it, so it did not truly meet requirement #1. If Panasonic had made this camera just a little taller to accommodate a larger viewfinder, it would have made a vast difference without adding much bulk. A small handgrip on the front would have also been helpful while still keeping it in pocket camera territory.
For some reason, Panasonic opted to place the On/Off button on the outside edge of the camera so that she has to reach over it in order to get to the shutter button…which has caused her to inadvertently shut off the camera when she’s trying to snap a photo. I have read a lot of user reviews on this camera, and apparently she was far from the only one who has struggled with this problem.
By contrast, the S3100 had a deep grip for her to really wrap her hand around, and she had to turn a dial to turn it on and off. That seems wrong to me too because it did not allow for zooming in and out with the same finger that controlled the shutter button (the zoom control was on the back), but at least she didn’t find herself inadvertently turning the camera off. And, if she dropped a camera with a grip like that, her new gripless camera is even more vulnerable.
A smarter camera does not always lead to better photos
Check out the mode dials on the top of each camera as well. The Fuji had four modes: auto, movie (240p, which is not even standard definition), manual and a scene mode with four scene options. But with such severe ISO limitations and a lens that ranged in maximum aperture from f2.8 to f8.7 across the zoom range, even the manual controls were quite limited.
By contrast, the Panasonic has a maximum ISO of 12,800 — and it can produce relatively noise-free images up to ISO 1600. The zoom lens ranges in maximum aperture from f2.0 to f5.9 across the zoom range, so that’s a significant improvement. It offers 10 modes: intelligent auto, program, creative control, shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual, movie (1080p full HD), a scene mode with 16 scene options, and two fully customizable modes.
My mom got overwhelmed by it all — she just wanted a camera that she could simply point and shoot. Yes, the intelligent auto mode allows that, but my hope was that she would venture out of this mode and get a little more ambitious. But the camera doesn’t do a good job of making this easy. Shutter priority mode should, by default, show the aperture, ISO and exposure values so that you can see the consequences of your shutter speed decisions. And the scene modes don’t help much either: the blurry cat photo was taken in “Pets” mode.
Quite frankly, even I as a photography enthusiast struggled to find all of the settings on this camera. Trying to set up the WiFi Smart Transfer feature was an exercise in frustration, primarily because the camera’s text entry does not allow for spaces. Not very smart.
The LF1 had a lot of promise, and it does take excellent photos once you figure it out how to set it. But you shouldn’t have to set it quite so much to begin with. It should just work out of the box. Maybe the successor to the LF1 will correct these problems and be a much better camera for it.
So I have a message for the camera industry: you can come up with all of the whiz-bang features you want, but unless they work intuitively and you get the ergonomics right, you won’t sell many more dedicated cameras. If you’re not sure about how to best design something, ask yourself if it would make sense to your mom.
Note: If you are not familiar with basic photography terms like exposure, sensor, aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO and focal length, this article will make a lot more sense after you read a primer on photography. I recommend Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 of the Photo Basics Series. Really, the whole series is worth a read if you’re a beginner.
Just as the advent of digital photography killed the film business, the advent of smartphone cameras is taking a major bite out of demand for dedicated consumer cameras. Smartphone cameras have gotten so good, in fact, that the best ones can replace entry-level “point-and-shoot” cameras.
Enthusiast and professional photographers seem to be undeterred from buying and upgrading high-end gear, but the mass market is shifting.
What went wrong?
For years, digital camera manufacturers sold new point-and-shoot models in droves and then convinced consumers that they could take much better pictures if they only upgraded to a new model with a longer zoom lens and more megapixels. For example, the Nikon Coolpix P600 has a 16-megapixel sensor and a 60X zoom lens.
While there were indeed some legitimate improvements in consumer camera technology during that period — the move from CCD-based to CMOS-based sensors led to huge gains in low light performance — consumers would need to dive deep into the spec sheet to notice gains in ISO flexibility. The megapixel counts and the zoom ranges, on the other hand, were printed right on the camera itself.
Yet these were exactly the wrong things for consumers to key in on when buying a camera. I’ve already written about the pitfalls of ever-increasing megapixel counts on consumer cameras, including smartphones. But now I want to talk about why you probably don’t want a point-and-shoot camera with a 60X zoom lens.
What you should know about super-telephoto lenses
We’ve all seen the professional sports and wildlife photographers standing behind their massive telephoto lenses mounted on monopods, and maybe we wanted to be just like them.
A pro like this is most likely operating a DSLR camera with a full-frame sensor (24 x 36mm) to match the image size on a roll of 35mm film, so just to keep things consistent, I’ll talk about lenses in terms of full-frame equivalency.
If a professional wildlife photographer with a Canon camera wanted a really long telephoto lens, he or she might buy this one: the Canon EF 600mm f4 IS II USM. Purchase price: $11,999.00. The lens is a massive 17.6 inches long and weighs in at 8.64 pounds, and the focal length is fixed at 600mm…no zooming.
Let’s compare that to the 60X lens on the Nikon Coolpix P600: when fully extended, it reaches out to 1440mm of focal length in 35mm terms: that’s more than twice what the long, $12,000 pro lens can do, and of course it’s much smaller and covers the whole focal range below 1440mm all the way down to 24mm while being much smaller.
Sounds great, right? A quasi-telescope that fits in your hand and takes pictures…all for under $400. Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold, and there’s a reason that the pros buy huge $12,000 telephoto prime lenses to mount on their $7,000 full-frame DSLR camera bodies.
For the best possible image quality, a prime lens — that is, a lens with a fixed focal length and no zoom — is the way for a photographer with an interchangeable lens camera to go. Of course, sometimes pro photographers are willing to trade off a bit of image quality for the focal length versatility of a zoom lens. For example, the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L USM lens. If you divide 200 by 70, you get 2.86. That’s not even a 3X optical zoom, and yet the sticker price is $1,449.00.
So why doesn’t it cover a longer focal length range? There are three reasons:
Size. This lens is already 7.6 inches long and weighs 2.86 pounds. Increasing the focal length would make the lens nearly unbearable to carry. Lenses attached to cameras with full-frame sensors have to be wide, and the focal length is dependent on the distance of the lens from the sensor as well as the width. That’s why point-and-shoot cameras with smaller sensors can pack on very long lenses while still being able to fit in your hand…if the sensor is small, the lens does not have to be as wide to cover the sensor.
Aperture. There are zoom lenses available for full-frame SLRs that are cheaper and smaller than that one with longer focal ranges, but that is because they have narrow apertures. For example, the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens is only 5.6 inches long, weighs 1.39 pounds and costs “just” $649. Because of the laws of physics and light, the wide f2.8 aperture makes the 70-200mm lens even larger at a given focal length. (You may sometimes hear photographers refer a lens being “fast” or “slow.” A lens with a wide aperture like f2.8 across all focal lengths is considered to be “fast” because it’s more accommodating for fast shutter speeds.)
Barrel distortion. Moving from a prime lens to a 2.86x zoom like this is already a tradeoff because zooms inherently distort the picture a little as compared to prime lenses. The longer the zoom range of a lens from the wide end to the telephoto end, the more the image is distorted, generally speaking. By distortion, I mean the image is actually bent out of shape a little. Some lens manufacturers, most notably Tamron, manufacture “all-in-one” zoom lenses for people (usually amateurs just starting out with an entry-level DSLR) willing to make this distortion tradeoff in exchange for not having to carry multiple zoom lenses, but even those compromised lenses tend to hover around the 10X to 12X range. And you never see these all-in-one lenses with constant fast apertures like f2.8 because they would have to be absolutely massive.
So, circling back to the Nikon P600, how good is that long zoom lens? Not very. First of all, the maximum aperture ranges from f3.3 at the wide end to f6.3 at the telephoto end. That f6.3 is a killer in low-light situations, and with a compact camera, you can’t raise the ISO much to compensate because your images will get noisy very quickly. And barrel distortion rears its very ugly head toward the wide end of the focal length range…turning your nice, straight vertical lines into slanted lines to the point where you might be reminded of the opening text crawl from the Star Wars films.
Back to that huge Canon 600mm f4 lens…there’s also a reason (besides just keeping it from tipping over) that photographers often mount super-telephoto lenses on monopods or tripods. It’s to keep the lens from shaking while taking a photo. At wide, normal, and even short telephoto focal lengths it’s not much of a concern, but in the super-telephoto range, a little shake of your hand can totally ruin your image. So if the professionals need help stabilizing a 600mm lens, do you really think you can keep your hands steady enough to shoot reliably at a 1440mm focal length without a tripod or monopod? (And, yes, that professional lens has image stabilization — hence the IS in the name.)
Fortunately, there are some newer fixed-lens cameras on the market that can really help you take better photos with a viewfinder and plenty of zoom…by emphasizing more important specs than megapixel count or extreme zoom range. Unfortunately, they do tend to cost more than more ordinary megazooms like the Nikon P600.
Panasonic DMC-FZ200 (MSRP $599) offers a somewhat more reasonable 24X zoom (25-600mm in full-frame terms) with a constant bright f2.8 aperture across the focal length range. Because this is still a point-and-shoot camera with a small, 1/2.3″ sensor, you should probably consider anything above ISO 800 as a last resort due to noise concerns. This becomes especially important when you’re trying to capture fast-moving subjects at long distances, like sports or wildlife because those require fast shutter speeds in order to avoid motion blur. So having an extra stop or two of light at the telephoto end can make a big difference — and the f2.8 aperture delivers. Even at the reduced focal length of 24X, you still get to the super-telephoto length of 600mm. Barrel distortion would still be a significant issue with a 24X lens, just not as much as it would be with a 60X lens.
At an MSRP of $899, the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000 is the FZ200’s big brother. Instead of a 1/2.3″ sensor, it has a larger 1″ sensor for improved image quality and cleaner photos at higher ISO settings. A larger, wider sensor requires a larger lens for the same focal length and aperture, so this one only manages a 16X zoom (25-400mm focal length range) with an f2.8-4 aperture across the focal length range. A 400mm zoom is still a lot — this is typical for the long lenses you see on the sidelines of soccer or football games, and f4 is a full stop brighter than f5.6, so it’s still somewhat “fast.”
The excellent Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 has dropped from its original sticker price of $1,299.00 to a slightly less shocking $999. Like the Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, the Sony RX10 has a 1″ sensor. The RX10 has an 8.3X zoom, which provides a focal range of 24-200mm and a constant aperture of f2.8 across the focal range. The shorter zoom may cause you to miss out on some distant shots, but the photos you can get should look great. Another advantage of cameras with larger sensors and wide-aperture zoom lenses is that you can get shallow depth-of-field effects so you can have those dreamy defocused backgrounds with the foreground in focus.
The Olympus Stylus 1 (MSRP $599) falls somewhere in between the Panasonic FZ200 and the Sony RX10. It has a 1/1.7″ sensor, which is larger than the 1/2.3″ sensor in the FZ200 but smaller than the 1″ sensor in the RX10 and FZ1000. It also has a 10.7X zoom with a constant f2.8 aperture across the 28-300mm focal range.
Cameras like these will inevitably fall in price as technology improves, and that’s good for everyone. Right now, for about the same price, you can also get an entry-level DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera and maybe even a 2-lens kit for long zooming. Changing lenses isn’t all that difficult as long as you don’t mind carrying two lenses with you. You won’t get f2.8 lenses anywhere near this price range, but with big DSLR sensors, you can dial up the ISO with a lot less of a noise penalty than with a point-and-shoot camera, so you may not need such a fast lens. Those are for the professionals.
Just remember, that when it comes to megapixels and zoom, more isn’t always better.
When it introduced the iPhone 5s, Apple increased the sensor size by 15 percent but left the resolution at a relatively paltry 8 megapixels. As I explained in my previous post, 8 megapixels is still enough to make an excellent-quality 8″ x 12″ print…which is more than enough for most consumers, especially those taking photos with smartphones. And even a 1080p television or monitor can only display about 2 megapixels full screen.
The advantage of this approach is that the individual pixels are larger (1.5 microns), and that means more light and better image quality.
A missed opportunity
Unfortunately, most smartphone manufacturers are moving in the opposite direction by increasing megapixel counts. For example, the Sony Xperia Z1 has 20 megapixels. Although the Sony’s sensor is a bit larger (matching many point-and-shoot cameras at 1/2.3″), the individual pixels are just 1.1 microns…and that means less light per pixel and reduced image quality. It also means larger file sizes — which is a major challenge given the relatively limited storage space on smartphones and the increasing trend to move away from card-based storage in smartphones. Even if users back up their photos regularly onto computer hard drives or cloud services, even those have limited storage space.
Just who is making 12″ x 18″ “high-quality” prints from a smartphone camera anyway?And would any photo from a camera with such small pixels be worth printing at this size anyway?
For too long, digital camera manufacturers have leapfrogged each other on megapixel counts as a selling feature for consumers, and this has carried over into smartphones. As a result, the real technological improvements in camera sensors for image quality and high-ISO performance have been stymied by smaller and smaller pixels. But the people who really need higher megapixel counts are professional photographers, not consumers. Yet the professional Nikon D4S with a full-frame sensor only prints 16.2-megapixel photos…because that’s all they need. But because of the larger sensor, the D4S has a pixel size of 7.3 microns — massive compared to even the best smartphone.
So why not just add bigger and bigger sensors to smartphones? Why not a full-frame sensor?
Certainly moving from 1/3.2″ on the iPhone 5 to 1/3″ on the iPhone 5S was a reasonable improvement, and the relatively obscure Nokia 808 Pureview offered a whopping 1/1.2″ sensor. But larger sensors cost significantly more in terms of manufacturing and require larger and larger lenses. That means more bulk. Not exactly something you want to slide into your pants pocket or replace when your 2-year wireless contract ends. Without a major revolution in lens design (which is dependent on the laws of physics), we can only realistically go so big with smartphone sensors.
Fuzzy (literally) math
So imagine if Sony had opted to go for 8 megapixels instead of 20 on the Xperia Z1 with its 1/2.3″ image sensor.
Divide 6.16 mm by 3,456 pixels to get 0.0018 mm per pixel.
One micron is equivalent to 1/1,000 of a millimeter, so multiply by 1,000 to get 1.8 microns per pixel. That’s significantly larger than the iPhone 5S, and that would mean significantly better image quality.
As good as that is, what if the Nokia 808 Pureview only had 8 megapixels of resolution instead of 41? Let’s do the math again.
A 1/1.2″ sensor measures 10.67 mm wide x 8 mm high.
An 8-megapixel image measures 3,456 pixels wide x 2,304 pixels high.
Divide 10.67 mm by 3,456 pixels to get 0.0031 mm per pixel.
Multiply by 1,000 to convert millimeters to microns, and you get 3.1 microns per pixel.
That’s substantially larger than the pixel size of the Sony RX100 (2.4 microns per pixel), which is an award-winning, high-end compact camera with 20.2 megapixels of resolution.
Other tradeoffs – cropping and digital zoom
So part of the appeal of the 1/1.2″ Nokia 808 Pureview and its smaller 1/1.5″ sensor successor the Nokia Lumia 1020, was the 41-megapixel resolution that enabled “reinvented zoom.”
What the cameras in these phones are really doing when they “zoom” is cropping the image to a more reasonable 5 megapixels without any loss in image quality. This is quite useful for smartphones, most of which don’t have optical zoom lenses. But when the pixels are small to begin with (1.4 microns on the 808 and 1.1 microns on the 1020), “lossless” doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of image quality.
But, as someone who regularly crops photos, if the full photo drops to 8 megapixels, then my crops could take them down even smaller. It leaves less flexibility…but even if I crop all the way in to 2 megapixels, that’s still 1080p resolution…great for displaying on screen (or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) or making 4″ x 6″ prints. The addition of a real optical zoom lens on a smartphone minimizes the need for digital zoom or cropping in the first place.
What does the future hold?
I don’t know if we’ll ever get to DSLR image quality or lens quality with our smartphones, but considering the rapid pace of advancements the industry has already made, I would also not rule it out. As it stands today, the best smartphones can go toe to toe with point-and-shoot cameras in terms of image quality, although the new generation of bridge cameras like the Olympus Stylus 1, Sony RX10, RX100 and Panasonic FZ1000 are raising the bar higher than ever for what a point-and-shoot camera can offer. There are only a handful of smartphone cameras that offer optical zoom at all (the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is basically a point-and-shoot camera first and a smartphone second, so it’s a bit awkward as a phone), but massive efforts are underway to bring real zoom lenses to smartphones while still allowing them to fit comfortably in your pocket.
The smartphone and camera industries just need to focus their energies in the right areas…and Apple has certainly set the precedent for that. As advancing sensor technology continues to squeeze more and more out of every pixel, then we can start to talk about larger and larger print sizes with more and more megapixels.
If you’re a pro photographer, especially a pro photojournalist, sports or wildlife photographer, the camera bodies of choice today are the Nikon D4S (MSRP $6,499.95) and the Canon EOS-1D X (MSRP $6,799.00). Not for the faint of wallet, especially with pricey full-frame lenses to buy on top of that.
And even if you have the budget for cameras like these, they are also bulky and heavy. The D4S body alone weighs 1,180 grams (about 2.6 pounds), and the EOS-1DX body alone weighs in at a whopping 1,530 grams (just under 3.4 pounds). Add on a battery grip, a big full-frame telephoto lens and a bag with a few additional full-frame lenses, and you’re looking at a serious backache.
So why do professionals subject themselves to all that expense, bulk and weight? Because these cameras are the best tools available for their needs. Here are a few reasons why:
Full-frame sensors. Full-frame image sensors (that is, sensors the same size as 35mm film) provide lots of advantages in terms of shallow depth of field effects and image quality at high sensitivity (ISO) settings. Quite simply, bigger sensors allow more light to come in. A full-frame sensor (depicted in orange in the image below) is 36mm x 24mm.
Fast burst rates. The D4S can shoot continuously at 11 frames per second, which is very fast, and the EOS-1D X can shoot even faster at 14 frames per second.
Fast, accurate autofocus. Fast burst rates are meaningless without accurate autofocus, especially for fast-moving subjects like soccer players or birds in flight. You will just end up with a whole lot of blurry images. So these DSLR cameras have phase detect autofocus sensors.
Optical viewfinders. Those who use these cameras in the field can’t afford to miss a moment to capture the perfect shot. That’s one reason they tend to prefer optical viewfinders, because “Live View” on an electronic viewfinder is not truly live — electronic viewfinders are slightly delayed because the camera has to process the image coming in through the sensor as well as any exposure adjustments before the image appears in the viewfinder. For most photography work, the delay is not significant enough to matter, but for these users, it might be the difference between capturing the shot and missing it. Also, most electronic viewfinders do not display the entire frame.
Weather sealing. Field work for sports, wildlife and general photojournalism can happen in all sorts of conditions and elements. I experienced this myself back in September 2002 when I was working as a reporter for The Mooresville-Decatur Times, and a tornado struck the town. After the tornados had passed, I had to go out and photograph the storm damage, and it was still raining quite a bit in the aftermath. It was a good thing the Nikon D1 I was using was weather sealed.
Fast ergonomics. These cameras are loaded with physical buttons that allow the photographer to change settings on the fly without having to rely on menus. The deep grips also help keep the camera steady in the photographer’s hand. Ergonomics might not be such a big deal for amateurs, but professionals who take very large numbers of photos and spend a lot of time holding a camera need a camera that “feels” right and doesn’t require navigating a lot of menus to change settings
It has a burst rate of 12 frames per second, has a deep grip and lots of external dials just like a professional DSLR, a new “Depth from Defocus” autofocus system that is fast and accurate for tracking moving subjects, weather sealing and more. And, by the way, the MSRP is $1,699.99, and it only weights 560 grams (about 1.2 pounds).
Your fancy 1080p HDTV only has about 2 megapixels of resolution
Not only that, but it does something significant that the flagships from Canon and Nikon can’t: it shoots 4K ultra high-definition video. But why is this important to still photographers?
Video is, fundamentally, a series of photographs…one in each frame. And, at a minimum, video is shot at 24 frames per second.
Most modern high-definition cameras shoot 1080p video with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you multiply 1920 by 1080, you get approximately 2 million, or about 2 megapixels. So each image in the frame would have a very low resolution in terms of photography and would only be usable for making very small prints: a 4″ x 6″ at 300 dots per inch. Larger prints are possible, but the quality becomes degraded.
But 4K video is shot at 3840 x 2160 pixels. Multiply 3840 by 2160, and you get more than 8 million, or more than 8 megapixels. That’s enough resolution for an excellent 8″ x 12″ print — larger than a full page in National Geographic or Sports Illustrated. Cinema 4K is shot at 4096 x 2160, but that’s a strange aspect ratio for still photos.
Unless the photographer needs an even larger print than 8″ x 12″ and cannot fudge on print resolution at all (an 8-megapixel photo could cover a 2-page spread in National Geographic at 200 dpi instead of 300, and that’s still considered “good” resolution), then the GH4 offers the ability to capture very printable action photos at 24 frames per second.
So why isn’t everyone jumping on the GH4 bandwagon? There are a few drawbacks to the GH4, but they don’t seem to be enough to make up for the price and weight difference or the potential for 24 fps photography.
Sensor size. The GH4 uses a Four Thirds sensor, which is considerably smaller than full frame: 18mm x 13.5mm, depicted in lime green above. There are some compromises in terms of depth of field and image quality at very high ISOs, but the GH4 produces images that are quite usable for 4K video up to ISO 3200, and usable up to ISO 6400 at smaller sizes, including 1080p video. Sure, a full-frame sensor provides super-shallow depth of field effects, but that’s more important for portraiture than for sports or wildlife photography. You can still get somewhat shallow depth of field with Micro Four Thirds cameras. And, since the sensor is smaller, the lenses can be a lot smaller and lighter too. For situations when you really need full frame image quality and 4K video, you can buy a Sony A7S for $2,499.99 in addition to the GH4 and still spend less and bear less weight than you would on a D4S or EOS 1D X. (Unfortunately the Sony A7S is not weather sealed, and its burst rate for stills is only 5 fps, or else I would recommend it instead of the GH4.)
No optical viewfinder. The biggest reason why the Panasonic GH4 and the Sony A7S are so light is that they do not have the pentamirror mechanism found in traditional DSLR cameras. And that means no optical viewfinder — only an electronic “Live View” viewfinder. But electronic viewfinders are not what they used to be — the electronic viewfinders on these cameras have so little lag that it’s “nigh imperceptible.” Both electronic viewfinders also cover 100% of the frame, which is an improvement over EVFs of the recent past. And the advantage of Live View is that you can see the results of exposure adjustments on the fly before shooting. EVF latency will never be zero, but with the GH4 and cameras like it, it’s awfully close.
Limited lens choices. Panasonic has the basics down in terms of professional lenses with its 12-35mm (24-70mm equivalent) and 35-100mm (70-200mm equivalent) weather-sealed, stabilized f2.8 zoom lenses. There are also some tremendous prime lenses in Panasonic’s lineup to get most of the shallow depth of field effects that you can find in a full-frame camera…including a 15mm (30mm equivalent) f1.7, a 25mm (50mm equivalent) f1.4 that I personally own and love, and 42.5mm (85mm equivalent) f1.2 portrait lens. Plus, Olympus has some great lenses of its own in the Micro Four Thirds lineup, with more pro lenses on the way. Canon and Nikon still have the edge in terms of lens selection, but a professional can build a fairly complete Micro Four Thirds lens kit at much lower prices and with much less weight than with full-frame Canon or Nikon lenses. (And maybe, just maybe, the excellent Olympus OM-D E-M1 will get 4K video as well…if not, we know Olympus is getting into the 4K game soon.)
Will this be enough to pry the Nikon D4S or the Canon EOS-1D X out of a professional photojournalist’s arthritic hand? Or will the next-generation pro DSLRs just start shooting 4K video too? Will we start to see more 8K video (with each frame being a 32-megapixel photo) or even higher resolutions? Memory cards that can hold terabytes of ultra HD video? Will the DSLR video revolution reverse course and place camcorders in every photographer’s hand instead of still cameras in every videographer’s hand? Will photo and video editing software converge to help photographers sift through 24 photos for every single second they were covering an event to find that one perfect image for publication? Smart phones that take professional-quality photos? It’s certainly an exciting time for photography.
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