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Photokina report: Part 1  
Tuesday, September 26, 2000 | by
Within minutes of Photokina 2000's 10 AM opening each day, crowds would fill the stands of the major digital camera manufacturers, including Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Olympus and others, while a more subdued but nearly as large throng would listen attentively as reps extolled the virtues of the DCS Pro Back in Kodak's pavilion. Even old favourites like the Nikon D1 drew a sizable and steady crowd, helped along in part by the leather-clad models draped across a motorcycle that anchored one end of Nikon's digital imaging area.

Part 1 of the Photokina report is broken down as follows:

Kodak DCS Pro Back

What can one say about a Hasselblad that produces 48MB files, without the restriction on photographer movement of most if not all other digital cameras in its class? Digging into the details of Kodak's 16 megapixel DCS Pro Back for the 555 ELD and Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, it quickly becomes clear that Kodak has taken advantage of the fact that other companies, such as Phase One and Megavision, blazed the trail in this category in hardware and software design. Kodak feels they have learned from the experience of the current class leaders, and is offering in the DCS Pro Back a digital system that is as good or better. Whether that's true or not is impossible to say right now, since the camera won't ship for perhaps six months.

Kodak DCS Pro Back

But one thing is clear: the camera is intriguing, and the accompanying software looks to be well thought out. In fact, the camera is probably in a class by itself for portrait photographers who require both high quality and lots of room to move during photo shoots. For newspaper studios with a whack of Hasselblad or Mamiya lenses and the need for gigantic enlargements, the DCS Pro Back will be an intriguing option.

The press release from which I and other web editors wrote Tuesday's stories on the DCS Pro Back contained a number of errors, including the statement that its LCD monitor serves as a live viewfinder. This is not the case, because the CCD is not of a type that can deliver a live video feed. Instead, the LCD monitor, or an attached external S-video display, serve up images after they're shot only. Also, the back contains two CF II card slots, not PC Card slots as the press released hinted. Other interesting tidbits about the product emerged out of discussions with Kodak marketing and engineering types today:

  • The back produces a 4080 x 4080 pixel, 12-bits per colour RGB file, once errant edge pixels are trimmed off. When opened into 8-bits per colour space in Photoshop, the resulting file is 47.7MB.

  • The CCD is a retuned version of the Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) sensor that has been Kodak's mainstay since the DCS 520 was introduced in early 1998. This is the fourth generation of the company's current sensor line (the DCS 520, DCS 560 and DCS 330 contain the first, second and third generation, respectively), with each generation apparently including small but noticeable image quality refinements. It has the same 9 micron pixel size of the DCS 560/660 sensor, though with about 3x the total surface area.

DCS Pro Back CCD

  • The focal length magnification is about 1.5x, relative to a frame of 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 film.

  • The DCS Pro Back's ISO is fixed at ISO 100.

  • It communicates with the Hasselblad 550 ELD over that camera's so-called databus connection.

  • An IR Blocking Filter will ship with the back, but not an Anti-Aliasing Filter. One large display print, filled with objects that love to moiré, showed nary a sign of the blue/yellow striping common to lower-resolution digital cameras, suggesting that it may very well be possible to forego use of the Anti-Aliasing Filter.

  • The back contains two CF II card slots that should be fully compatible with the IBM 1GB Microdrive and other popular CF I and CF II cards, including those from Lexar Media. Kodak promises to tweak the back's internal reader/writer for maximum throughput of its decidedly large files to the most popular cards. The DCS Pro Back contains 128MB of RAM, enough to store up to 8 photos, at 1 frame every 2 seconds.

  • The camera is powered either by a FireWire connection to a Mac or by an external Quantum battery. Which battery has not been announced, but an accessory kit is expected that will contain the required custom battery cable.

  • The LCD monitor will include a 3 or 4 step zoom function that includes a magnification level in which one pixel in the photo is represented by one pixel on screen. This should be a great way to confirm critical focus.

  • Also included will be an LCD monitor spot meter that is clearly inspired by Ansel Adams. It will display a value that indicates how much a chosen spot in the photo deviates from middle grey, making Zone System photography a snap. A histogram will be included too, and should be quick to access by the new one-handed menu system Kodak is developing for the back.

  • The back's RAW files are squeezed by the same lossless compression scheme as other Kodak pro camera files, and have a similar internal structure overall, though some internal changes mean that the camera will produce .DCR files, not .TIF. This should help eliminate confusion for some. The RAW files are raw; that is, no white balance correction is performed in the camera.

  • The camera assumes Daylight is the lighting choice always, unlike other Kodak cameras, which offer a choice. With the DCS Pro Back, Kodak is moving to an ICC-compatible colour engine for image processing. This is a departure from previous cameras like the DCS 520, which uses a proprietary colour engine. To change the lighting selection in DCS Pro Back files to match the environment requires the creation of an ICC input profile for that environment.

  • DCS Capture Studio 1.5 is a completely retooled version of the software shown at PMA in February. The program was revised to streamline the workflow and make key tools easier to learn and use. It will include 10 "looks" that will be designed to simulate different film types, though the 10 looks will not mention films by name. Capture Studio will include a WB setting, an RGB Working Space preference (which can't be ignored, since the entire colour processing path is reliant on the proper interlinking of ICC profiles), sharpening with the same controls as Photoshop's Unsharp mask filter, Levels (RGB or individual channels), Curves (RGB or individual channels), +/-1 stop exposure compensation, an Info palette and more. The program is divided up into three panes: Exposure and Tone, Colour Correction and Composition, where the last pane includes cropping and image resampling.

  • At launch, input profiles using the program's slick profile wizard will be built from the older Gretag Macbeth ColorChecker, and not the new ColorChecker DC.

    DCS Pro Back firmware will include such Kodak niceties as the Quick Format, Full Format, and Recover Card options of other Kodak cameras.

By announcing the DCS Pro Back long before it ships, and before there is even a fully-functioning model to show, Kodak is clearly taking a page from Nikon and its extended introduction of the D1. It's pinning its hopes in part that the non-working teaser they're providing shooters at Photokina will forestall sales of competing high end cameras long enough to aid Kodak's entry into the market in what will likely be the early spring of 2001.

Canon EOS D30

The Canon EOS D30 stand in Canon's show area was popular. Extremely popular. Dealers and shooters spent a lot of time poking and prodding the production-version D30 bodies on display.

The D30 stand in Canon's packed booth at Photokina 2000

In the D30 Canon really seems to have a winning design, one that should meet the needs of amateurs and certain pros nicely. The camera clearly has the stuff for a variety of photojournalistic applications, as Canon Germany's series of D30 photos from the Olympics in Sydney demonstrates. Colour quality of D30 photos on-screen at Photokina, however, was only okay, especially in photos shot under contrasty overhead lighting or in the intense light of the mini-studio Canon had erected (for Powershot G1 demos, actually). In fact, the colour from Canon's Powershot G1, D30 and S10, among others, all seem to share a common trait: so-so skin tones when the light is contrasty, as all three cameras tend to introduce unwelcome unsaturation and a pinky colour shift.

I'm anxious to shoot with a production D30 in a variety of situations typical to photojournalists to see how its colour measures up, because pre-production samples around the web, and production D30 photos displayed on monitors at Photokina, demonstrate there is reason to be concerned about the camera's colour capabilities, especially if pleasing skin tones are a priority. The D30 is on track to ship late next month worldwide.

Canon's new pro digital SLR?

As expected, Canon didn't revealed a pro digital SLR at Photokina, though Canon Germany reps are talking openly about an early-2001 introduction. That's consistent with the message from Canon USA over the past several months. Canon SLR shooters will have to satisfy their digital needs with the DCS 520 and upcoming EOS D30 for a while longer.

Diffractive Optical Element (DO) lens technology

Canon did display a prototype 400mm lens that incorporates its Diffractive Optical Element (DO) lens technology. The most obvious benefit of Canon's new lens design is that it makes long glass appreciably shorter, and lighter. I was intrigued when Alec Pytlowany first pointed me to a web page on the new lens design, but the size difference is something that must be appreciated in person, especially after years of lugging around Canon 300mm f2.8 and 400mm f2.8 lenses. The prototype is a 400mm f4 DO IS USM lens, and is said to be 26% shorter and 36% lighter than the equivalent non-DO lens. I hope that similar benefits, without degradation of image quality, can be derived by the incorporation of DO into other telephoto lenses in Canon's stable.

Canon EF 400mm f4 DO IS USM lens (top); non-DO equivalent (bottom)

Fuji S1 Pro vs Fujichrome Provia 100F

On opposite sides of the opening to their expansive booth, Fuji displayed one large print each from the Fuji FinePix S1 Pro and from Fujichrome Provia 100F 35mm slide film. A comparison of the two well-lit studio shots reveals a lot about the state of digital SLR photography today.

4.5 foot high print at left is from S1 Pro; 7 foot high print at right was shot
on 35mm Fujichrome Provia 100F. Both show great colour (which may not
translate well on-screen in these mixed light Coolpix 990 photos)

First, the colour and contrast is similar, if not the same. I've previously been struck by how much S1 Pro photos look like they're shot on Fuji film, as if it were the same colour scientists tuning the colour in both Fuji's digital SLR and in their various films. This, of course, is a compliment to the S1 Pro, since the wonderful skin tones, rich (but controlled) saturation and contrast of Provia is not easy to match. But in the prints on display, and in many other S1 Pro photos, it's clear that colour quality is the camera's primary strength.

The S1 Pro photo also lacked the prominent grain pattern that was evident in the 7 foot tall Provia print. In fact, its overall smoothness was impressive. In every other respect, however, the film frame was the hands-down winner. It was significantly sharper and more life-like, and would easily be the preferred way of the two to shoot for output that large. The S1 Pro frame was noticeably soft, even at a normal viewing distance for a 4.5 foot tall photo, with detail such as eyelashes and strands of hair looking, well, digital. One could blame printer differences, operator error and other factors as the reason for the Provia's apparent superiority. The reason that I'm not doing that is that the S1 Pro prints on display were not unlike what I'm accustomed to seeing from this camera, or even competing digital SLR's. In short, the S1 Pro print looked as I expected it to look for that enlargement size.

The closeups of each photo below are an attempt to illustrate the differences I'm referring to. Admittedly, you really had to see the full-size renditions of each to properly appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Good colour and smoothness, but unacceptable sharpness
and an unwelcome digital look to fine detail such as strands
of hair. A mild colour pattern appears in dark areas (hair especially),
and is somewhat noticeable around the eyelashes above.

Graininess was the only thing limiting the stunning
quality of this print. Sharpness, colour, richness of tone -
this print had it in abundance.

Digital SLR quality is really good these days, but's it's unlikely that any of the current crop of cameras - DCS 520, D2000, 620, 620x, D30, S1 Pro or D1 - could match Provia in all important image quality areas. Even the DCS 560 and 660 would be hard-pressed to deliver Provia's same level of clarity at extreme enlargement sizes.

Yes, I know, such talk is heresy on a digital web site. There's no denying it, however: film is good. While film is more readily matched or exceeded by higher-end digital cameras, 35mm-style digital SLRs, and to a much greater extent digital point-and-shoots, have some way to go before they can eclipse the best-available 35mm films in all areas. It's a qualitative difference that can't simply be described in terms of pixel count, bit depth or a host of other digital specifications.

Regular readers of this web site know that I've not been a fan of the marketing approach of Fuji's representatives at trade shows. Photokina was no exception. I eavesdropped on several demos of the camera, the few that were conducted in English, and heard the following inaccuracies:

  • The S1 Pro is a 6.1 megapixel camera (it's actually 3.x megapixel camera that can interpolate the data derived from its honeycomb-shaped pixels into a 6.1 megapixel file).

  • The camera is well-suited to photojournalism (not by my definition of photojournalism, since it lacks pro-level ruggedness, has a slow frame rate and small frame buffer and will not autofocus Nikon's Silent Wave lenses).

  • It's compatible with the full range of Nikon lenses (not by my definition of compatible, since, as mentioned, it won't autofocus Nikon's Silent Wave lenses, the lenses most likely to be in the bags of pro photographers these days).

  • Nikon and Fuji cooperated in the development of the camera (Nikon only supplied the N60 body to Fuji, they did not assist in its development).

Introducing the Nikon D2. Not.

Nikon didn't reveal a replacement for the D1 digital SLR, nor was one really expected. To compensate, however, the smoke machine in the D1 area of the booth was on overdrive during the first few days of Photokina 2000. Not only was it adding atmosphere to the gelled-light motorcycle setup that was the subject of D1 demos, it also hung at times over other sections of Nikon's stand, giving a kind of hazy look to the area that one, fortunately, doesn't associate with Nikon glass.

Speaking of Nikon glass, some of the new grey-barreled Nikkor lens are on display, and they are at first glance a ringer for equivalent Canon products. Having said that, I do appreciate the practical reason Nikon reps were putting forward for the lighter-coloured lenses: they should hold up better in extreme heat.

The light-grey trio (left to right): AF-S 300mm f/4D IF-ED,
AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8D IF-ED and AF-S 300mm f/2.8D IF-ED

Pentax digital SLR

Prior to Photokina, Pentax announced they were developing a digital SLR based on a 6 megapixel, "35mm-film-sized" CCD from Philips. That camera was on display at the company's stand at Photokina 2000, but under glass on a rotating pedestal.

Pentax cameras don't figure much in the lives of photojournalists or other pro SLR shooters. Nevertheless, the camera is interesting for what it says about the direction of digital SLRs towards what many consider to be the holy grail: a digital sensor equal in size to a frame of 35mm film in an affordable, compact package. If Canon and Nikon are compelled to follow suit, wide angle shooters especially will rejoice.

Pentax's "Digital Autofocus SLR camera" on display at Photokina 2000

What few details Pentax has released include:

  • The Philips CCD contains 3072 x 2048 pixels for a total of 6,291,456 pixels. That translates to a file size of at or near 18MB.

  • The CCD is "35mm-film-sized", which should mean there's no focal length magnification factor.

  • The camera includes two cards slots, in an arrangement that permits one PC Card Type II and one CompactFlash Card Type II to squeeze in simultaneously.

  • The user may choose from TIFF, JPEG and RAW file format modes.

  • The back houses a 2 inch colour LCD monitor.

  • An IEEE 1394 FireWire connector is included.

  • The camera will use Pentax's latest KAF2 mount. K, KA and KAF lenses will be compatible, as will those for the Pentax 645 and 67 with an adapter.

Pentax digital SLR - rear view

Contax also displayed its N1 digital SLR, for release in 2001.

Sigma continues lens development at prolific pace

Leafing through Sigma's catalog, and browsing their stand at Photokina, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of lenses in Sigma's product line, and the pace at which new glass is introduced. No fewer than 6 new lenses for pro or advanced amateur use were unveiled, as well as two teleconverters. New pro-level lenses include:

I've never been a fan of Sigma's zooms, as any I've tried have had overly-stiff zoom rings and a feel that is markedly inferior to Canon or Nikon brand lenses. The Sigma 14mm f2.8, on the other hand, is really good. If Sigma's f1.8 wide angle lenses are of similar quality to their 14mm, they could be a viable alternative to Canon or Nikon glass for those who need something really fast, wide and relatively inexpensive.

Canon Powershot G1

The Canon Powershot G1 is not really a pro camera, but given its collection of features it will likely duke it out with the Coolpix 990 as the camera of choice for pro photographers seeking a point and shoot digital camera. The G1 has been covered in detail by other, more amateur-focused sites, so I won't delve into the camera in detail here. Except to say that it's aimed squarely at the Coolpix 990, my current favourite among amateur digital cameras, with some 990-beating features. They include RAW file support, better software, a hot shoe (for use with EX-series strobes), movie clips with rudimentary sound (the 990's video clips are surprisingly good, but lack any sound at all), CompactFlash Type II card slot and an LCD menu interface that I prefer. Its flip-and-pivot screen is just about a match for the 990's two-part twisting body, though as two Danish photojournalists observed, nothing can really beat the 990 for low, high and no-angle shooting.

Crowds kept the Canon Powershot G1 booth staff hopping

Pro shooters wanting a weekend digicam now face a tough choice between the two. See Digital Photography Review, Steve's Digicams (scroll well down the page) and Imaging Resource (scroll down) for more info.

Ricoh GR21 35mm film camera

My first SLR was a Ricoh, back in the late 70's. Even though I was only 12 or 13 at the time, I quickly concluded it was a weird camera. So weird in fact, that I took it back to the camera store shortly after purchase, to replace it with the best Yashica camera of the day. I was spending some hard-earned allowance money, so I wanted the camera to be just right.

Ricoh's cameras don't seem so weird to me anymore, but there's no doubt about it, the company does tend to produce both film and digital models that are unlike those coming from other camera manufacturers. The new RDC-i700 amateur digital camera is one example of this, with its long, thin design and integrated image editing and transmission capabilities.

Another example, and one that may be of real interest to pros, is the new GR21. It's a pocket-size 35mm film camera, with a fairly typical range of features: ISO 25-3200 film speed range, program or aperture priority exposure, rangefinder viewing, a built-in flash which may be manually turned on or off, exposure bracketing in half stop increments, adjustable exposure compensation, self-timer, cable release socket and PC outlet for external flash. What is most unusual, though, is the focal length of the lens: 21mm, at a relatively speedy f3.5. Who would build a point-and-shoot film camera with a 21mm lens? Ricoh of course. It's not likely to be a big seller, but if you don't like to give up serious wide angle viewing when you set aside your pro SLR for a point-and-shoot, the GR21 may be the answer. It's also available in a 28mm f2.8 version, called the GR1s (shown below). They look almost identical, and have only minor functionality differences.

The 28mm f2.8 Ricoh GR1s, which is near-identical in
appearance to the 21mm f3.5 GR21

The photo may not capture how small and light the camera is. At 4.6 x 2.5 x 1 inches, and about half a pound, it's a tiny featherweight. I'm not sure what I would use it for, but I want one.

Hasselblad DFinity

Foveon made a splash with their recent announcement of a 16 megapixel CMOS sensor, coverage of which made it to the august technology pages of the New York Times web site and elsewhere. And while that announcement was probably more about securing financing than the announcement of an available product, at Photokina 2000 Foveon hooked up with Hasselblad to discuss their joint effort, the Hasselblad DFinity, a new digital camera that is definitely on its way.

Using three CMOS sensors (that are lower resolution than the 16 megapixel sensor recently announced) and a Foveon-developed prism arrangement, the camera emits by default about a 12MB RGB image that should be free of digital artifacting and, if the sample TIFFs are any indication, should also have wonderful colour. It will accept Canon EF lenses with an adapter, though Hasselblad indicates it will be creating a new line of lenses specifically for the DFinity.

Hasselblad DFinity with Canon EF-series lens attached

This camera falls pretty far from the photojournalism tree, so I won't say anything more about it. The full press release and sample images are on Foveon's web site.

DCS 520 internal component photos

Kodak displayed the major components of a DCS 520 in a glass case in the sprawling Kodak hall. The camera is divided into three main components: the modified EOS-1n camera body, sensor board, and the rest of the digital circuitry, called the Brick.

The CCD is mated to a small circuit board as shown, which is then screwed
into place inside the modified EOS-1n body. Note that the film rails, film
advance motor and other components have been stripped from the camera.

The "Brick" contains the rear LCD screen and other digital circuitry in
a foldable circuit board design. A similar board is found inside the
DCS 620, DCS 560, DCS 660 as well as the EOS D2000.

A wafer of DCS 520 CCD sensors. It takes weeks, and several hundred
steps, to produce a wafer like this. See the June 1998
Scientific American feature
on how a CCD works for more information.

Note: All photos (except for press handouts) shot with a Nikon Coolpix 990 set to Auto colour, manual exposure, and lit by an SB-28DX flash diffused by a Westcott Micro Apollo mini-softbox.

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