The true face of stills/video convergence? Zacuto is one of a number of firms that make dedicated accessories to make your V-DSLR ‘cinema ready’
Convergence is the key word if you're talking about DSLR development. The old 35mm format converges with digital medium format backs in resolution; medium format begins to acquire wider lens choices and more 35mm-like ergonomic; stills get high quality video functions; video rigs become able to shoot still frames. It can only be a matter of time before a rollfilm format back appears offering eight million pixel video, tomorrow's equivalent of IMAX 70mm, and someone shoots a movie using a vintage Hasselblad. Might be a long time, though ...
Meanwhile, Nikon has discovered that using its Motion-JPEG encoding does (as I observed when comparing earlier Nikon and Canon video clips) produce a much sharper frame by frame rendering. As long as the shutter speed has been kept fast enough to freeze action and the ISO is not boosted to an extreme, Nikon video footage can be used to make half-page tabloid pictures. It's the sharpest and most detailed freeze-frame video on the market, and with the new full-frame D3s it is exploiting this advantage.
Traditional video wisdom says that fast shutter speeds are bad. They create jerky action, where slightly blurry movement at around 1/60s or so looks more natural. The press will not heed traditional wisdom; they want every frame of the video to be like a good still shot. Canon has followed by enabling total control of aperture, shutter and ISO settings in video modes in the EOS 7D. The compression is stronger than Nikon's and the MPEG-4 frames do not have anything like the crisp look, but they are bigger at 1920x1080 pixels and they too will print perfectly well at half page size.
Both makers are clearly heading to convergence of still and video in a future DSLR generation. One day your TV will output sharp A4s from video frames on its built-in printer. An Ethernet link is already turning many new TV sets into a web browser and multimedia player, and the need to print out follows from that. You won't even have to upload media files. Just put the camera down near the TV, pick up the remote control, and view anything you have shot - still or video. Today you can do it with a USB cable. Tomorrow, it's going to be wireless.
Data in, data out
There is a running joke about putting a phone into your DSLR the way 12 million pixel cameras are now getting into phones. In fact, the GSM and GPS modules of advanced mobile phones - cellular data transmission and satellite navigation - will certainly be used in forthcoming DSLRs.
Right now, both are add-ons. Nikon has the neatest integration of GPS with a dedicated socket even in the consumer level D5000, and an affordable location tracking module to fit in the accessory shoe. Canon and Nikon compete with file transmission modules using WiFi (or indeed, cable networking) because that is what's demanded at sports stadiums and major news events. It is possible now to shoot directly into a picture desk system on a laptop and send the results by web or FTP using a mobile data dongle. Tomorrow, no laptop; just select the pictures to send on the camera screen, resize in- camera, choose your destination and transmit.
The cameras of 2009, compared to 2008, already have an important interface change. Sony's A200-350 and A230-380 shift is a good example - the conventional 'video out' for playing back images is gone, replaced by HDMI. At the same time, computers and monitors are getting HDMI connectors. Owning four DSLR bodies all equipped with HDMI out, I checked out laptops with HDMI. They are all - currently - only capable of output, not input. You can plug a Nikon D300S, Sony A900 or Canon 5D MkII into an HDMI television or monitor but not as yet into any PC I can find.
Just as the mini-USB interface was adapted to deliver S-VGA video, the mini-HDMI could be adapted to transfer data - and it will happen.
The media drives (card slots) of recent or current cameras may prove to be their route to obsolescence. Some 32GB and 64GB cards are already reported to be unreadable in DSLRs from 2008. Cards with 600x and even faster read speeds (write is normally slower) and capacities into the hundreds of GB are being announced. Even cameras launched in 2009 may be unable to use such large cards, or benefit from higher speeds. Firmware fixes can't update hardware. Nikon, in 2009, broke new ground by offering a double buffer capacity upgrade for the D3. Which maker will be first to offer a hardware upgrade to the card slot module?
The power of CPUs in the latest DSLRs is not all about image processing speed. All recent Nikon cameras include in-camera raw processing with a range of tone or filter effects and basic retouching. Red-eye removal has been around for a long time and automatic panorama stitching was another early introduction. The latest develop-ment, in the Sony Alpha 500 and 550, is in-camera High Dynamic Range JPEG creation from a bracketed sequence of three exposures. It's possible to shoot without a tripod as the camera analyses the shots and aligns them, rotating and moving the images so that details are precisely in register.
Photoshop's Merge Focus function can be compared to HDR. Expect to see focus-bracketing with in-camera blending to create High Depth-of-Field as the next similar development.
Face detection in live view has found its way from consumer cameras into the top end of Nikon and Canon DSLRs, while smile detection has arrived in Sony's range, again first seen in pocket digitals. A related technology, movement detection, has not yet appeared in-camera, though ZigView's add-on live view finder accessory includes it. The ZigView can be left running for hours and will fire the camera whenever something like an animal moves into the frame. In-camera live view systems can't be left operating for as long.
Motion sensors in the camera are being used in many different ways, first appearing as part of sensor-based image stabilisation. Hasselblad's H4D uses them to detect the process of locking focus on a subject and re-composing the shot, measuring the amount of angular movement, and adjust the lens focus accordingly. Alignment sensors are used in the Canon EOS 7D to create a digital spirit level accurate to within 1 deg and measuring up to 6 degs of pitch or yaw tilt. Nikon's system in the D3 series only measures alignment with the horizon.
Pentax's latest Shake Reduction systems can rotate the sensor to compensate for rotation about the lens axis (not the same at 'rotational shake', which means a change in angle of the lens axis, and is the normal type of shake). Canon's latest Image Stabilisation in lenses can detect offset of the lens axis, shake in which no rotation occurs, and correct this for macro photography where it has most visible effect.
Put all these technologies together with autofocus and a live view electronic finder, and tomorrow's pro camera may well be able to shift, tilt and swing its lens while rotating and shifting the sensor to guarantee a perfectly spirit-levelled shot with sharp focus from the foreground right to infinity.
Evil is alive
An unfortunate acronym maybe, EVIL stands for Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens. It's here now in the form of the Micro Four Thirds models from Olympus and Panasonic, which use a standard Four Thirds sensor but a slim body with no SLR mirror. The lens mount relates to standard Four Thirds the same way Leica M relates to Leica R.
Sony and Canon are both thought to be working on EVIL models, either with an additional short back focus lens system or using existing Alpha and EF-S mounts. By removing the mirror and either relying on the rear LCD screen alone, or the screen plus an eye level electronic viewfinder, costs can be reduced and developments like 15 frames per second sequence shooting enabled.
The new lens mounts would, like Panasonic's standard zoom for GH1, be able to autofocus during video shooting and acquire still shot AF much faster in live view (the only option for such cameras anyway).
Samsung has already shown a prototype of a new APS-C-based mirror-less camera system to journalists at European trade shows, and Ricoh unveiled a completely new kind of hybrid module camera this week. The revolutionary GXR uses interchangeable units that each have their own lens, image processing engine and dedicated sensor, which then slide into the compact-sized camera body.
The unit's internal components have been designed to complement the particular lens and provide the best image quality possible, according to Ricoh. The first two units include a 12 million pixel module with a 50mm equivalent lens, and another with 10 million pixels and a 24-72mm zoom. Further units will be designed for specialist applications, says Ricoh, such as a high fps/longer zoom type for sports. An add-on 920,000-dot electronic viewfinder offering 100% field of view will also be available.
Back to the future
In October Alamy published a blacklist of cameras unlikely to pass its quality control. My trusted 2004 Konica Minolta A2 eight million pixel zoom bridge camera was on it. Pictures from this camera have outsold DSLR shots about five to one proportionately, but I packed it up to go on eBay.
Two days later, I bumped the price up to make sure I kept the camera. I had forgotten what it could do: manual shutter speeds to 1/16,000s; articulated finder and screen; 7fps motion-analysis sequences; 15 or 30fps low-resolution video; built-in time lapse sequences; wireless control of external flash from its built-in flash; extreme depth-of-field; tethered capture with live view exposure and focus adjusted from a PC and much more.
This was a 2/3rds sensor format camera with every function expected from a DSLR. The EVIL future can pick up again on the kind of developments seen in those bridge cameras of five years ago but the real issue will be the one which plagued Dimage, Powershot or Coolpix alike - the awful quality of electronic viewfinders compared to optical.
Panasonic's G1 and GH1 are the best we have seen since then but still not good enough for many potential buyers. For the next really important development, watch out for electronic viewfinders.
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