The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is one of the biggest platforms in the world for announcing new photography kit. So what went down in 2015?
In the early hours of this morning (if you're in Europe), Ricoh announced a new bridge camera, the Pentax XG-1. But what exactly is a bridge camera, and who constitutes the target market?
Spanning the gap
It's all in the name, really. A bridge camera spans the gap from small compact cameras with fixed lenses to larger and heavier dSLRs with interchangeable lenses. They're fixed lens cameras that enjoy impressive optical zoom capabilities—in the case of the XG-1 a 52× zoom or the 35mm equivalent of 24 to 1,248mm—and the full manual control that you'd expect from a dSLR. However, although they might share a similar shape to a dSLR with its characteristic pentaprism hump, they don't share the mirror and the optical viewfinder mechanism. They function akin to compact cameras, making them smaller and lighter than their dSLR cousins.
Benefits of bridge cameras
Although a bridge camera usually comes in bigger and heavier than a compact camera, they're smaller and lighter than dSLRs; this means you get the advantages of manual control and impressive telephoto prowess but without the bulk. As the lens with all the optical zoom is built into the camera body, there aren't any expensive, bulky lenses to schlep about, either. You can switch from wide angle to telephoto with the movement of a button, rather than the inconvenience of a lens change and the potential of subjecting your sensor to dust and dirt. If you're shooting in dirty or dusty conditions, a bridge camera might be preferable to an interchangeable lens model.
Bridge cameras present you with control and magnification in a neat, cheap package. The new Pentax XG-1 is priced at
£250 £280*; the Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Olympus equivalents aren't too far off that mark and have generally similar specs.
Drawbacks to bridge cameras
My 70-200mm zoom lens doesn't extend nearly as far as the 1,248mm of the Pentax XG-1. But it does have a fixed maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8. So whether I'm zoomed in or out, I can open my aperture as wide as ƒ/2.8. This isn't usually the case with bridge cameras. At its maximum zoom, the XG-1 has a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6. (When it is zoomed out, the XG-1 has a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8.) While this might not be a terrible state of affairs where depth-of-field is concerned because the magnification factor is so high, it can be an issue with respect to letting in sufficient light.
With such an enormous zoom, camera shake is a big issue for bridge cameras and to help mitigate that, you need a fast shutter speed assisted by a large aperture. Most bridge cameras do have image stabilisation to help prevent camera shake making itself obvious in your photos, but that smaller aperture at maximum zoom can be problematic.
The huge zoom can you close to the action with a bridge camera, but they don't always enjoy lightning fast autofocus and the EVF can be slow to refresh if you're shooting action scenes. That might mean the difference between shot made and a shot lost, particularly if you're trying to photograph sports or anything fast-moving.
Most bridge cameras use a 1/2.3" sensor. Although that gives them more klout than many compact cameras, they aren't as well endowed as dSLRs, which come with APS-C or full-frame sensors. This can be detrimental to image quality, with noise rearing its ugly head in images.
Bridge cameras versus EVIL cameras
While both bridge and EVIL cameras tend to be smaller than dSLRs, there remain significant differences that set apart the two groups. EVIL cameras come with a range of different sensor sizes, but they need separate lenses. They're also more expensive than bridge cameras, particularly when you factor in lenses, which doesn't place them in direct competition.
So bridge cameras are meant for...
People who want the flexibility of manual controls, incredible zoom, and a lightweight camera are the ideal consumers for bridge cameras. They're excellent for travel, even if they can struggle in low-light and be a little slow to focus. Bridge cameras don't require an arsenal of lenses, but do get you close to your subjects. And they tend to be afforable, too.
* We received a price correction from Ricoh on Tuesday 22 July
Last month, Ricoh 'repositioned' the prices of four of its Pentax cameras: two dSLRs, one EVIL camera, and its 645D digital medium format camera. From Ricoh's perspective, it's an attempt to make the Pentax brand more attractive to consumers and present them with some competitively priced options that aren't Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, or Sony. What does this mean from the consumer's perspective, however? What sort of value for money can a Pentax purchase offer? I decided to do a bit of digging.
K-3: £950 body-only
The K-3 is Pentax's flagship dSLR camera, heading its modest line up of current models. It isn't, however, the likes of a Canon, Nikon, or Sony flagship camera, which are all full-frame. This has an APS-C sensor and is much more similar to their high-end smaller-sensored cameras.
The K-3's key features include a maximum sensitivity of ISO 51,200; top frames-per-second speed of 8.3; a 24 megapixel sensor; a dual SD card slot; and full weather sealing. At its new £950 price point, this leaves the K-3 in an interesting position.
For around £850 you can pick up a Canon 70D or a Nikon D7100. It's not a straight-up comparison against the 70D, though. That has lower resolution (20 megapixels); a slower continuous shooting speed (7 frames-per-second), and its sensitivity tops out at ISO 25,600. Where it does beat the K-3 is on connectivity—it has wi-fi functionality—and on video capability. By all accounts if you're interested in recording video, you're better off with the 70D than the K-3. Finally, Canon has a far broader range of lenses than Pentax, which presents you with much more flexibility as well as purchasing options.
Against the Nikon D7100, you're looking at similar resolution, dual SD card slots, and dust and water resistance (but not water-proofing), but lower sensitivity (ISO 25,600) and slower frames-per-second rate (6). Video on the D7100 is also meant to be good and Nikon has a huge lens selection, too. Unless you're very serious about action photography or need cold-resistance too, the D7100 seems a better option to me.
K-50: £500 body-only
The K-50 isn't Pentax's 'entry-level' offering, that's the K-500, but it does boast weather resistance, a top sensitivity of ISO 51,200, and a maximum frames-per-second rate of 6. It's sensor is a 16 megapixel APS-C one. So at around £500 (although you can pick them up cheaper), how does it compare?
Against the Nikon D5300, it's a day at the races: some you win and some you lose. Where the K-50 loses in the megapixel race (16 versus 24) it wins in the frames-per-second stakes (6 versus 5) and the ISO handicap (51,200 versus an expanded 25,600). The K-50 doesn't have an entry when it comes to wi-fi and GPS, giving the Nikon a walk-over; but the situation is reversed when it comes to weather sealing. With the D5300 selling for around £550 body-only, it'll be a case of careful consideration what you want from a camera. Something that slots into a system with which you can grow significantly (the Nikon), or something that's reliably built but doesn't offer huge scope for progression with lenses or more extensive specs.
Unless you specifically want a dSLR, it's also worth looking at EVIL options; around the £500 mark there are a few choices that can give you plenty of camera for your money. There's the Sony NEX-6 or a6000, or Fujifilm's X-M1. You'll be getting very similar specs, and in the case of the a6000 and X-M1 wi-fi to boot, but not the weather sealing. The question is, what do you want from your camera?
With a 1/1.7" sensor, it's actually a struggle to find a direct EVIL competitor for the Q7. Sony and Canon use APS-C sensors, Panasonic and Olympus use Micro Four Thirds, and Nikon favours CX. There's nothing that small. If you're looking for a camera as handily sized as the Q7, that's reasonably priced, but still has interchangeable lenses, take a look at the Olympus E-PM2. Or you could ignore the interchangeable lens issue—with a camera that small, having interchangeable lenses might overwhelm the benefits of its smaller body anyway—and go for a compact. Something like Canon's S120, Olympus' XZ-2, or if you can stretch the pennies further, Sony's RX100.
645D: £4,250 body-only
This one is the easiest of the lot. If you're looking to dip your feet into medium format waters, there is nothing as affordable as the Pentax 645D. You'll either be sticking with a top-of-the-range Canon or Nikon dSLR, or a Hasselblad or Mamiya medium format.
Having test-driven a few Pentax cameras, there is a lot to like about them. And if you live anywhere that rain or dust might conceivably be an issue, the weather-sealing is a very attractive prospect. But it's a case of considering what your needs are from a camera and whether or not you're looking for heaps of compatible lenses, both native and third party, as well as accessories and add-ons. How far do you think you might want to take your photographic progress? How far do you want to take your camera? How much money do you have to spend?
Getting good value for money isn't just about the pennies in your pocket right now and the current crop's spec sheets. It's also about long-term planning and ensuring that you and your camera—and the system into which you've bought—have a future together.
Whatever you're looking to buy, it's always worth considering all of your options.
Today, I came across an interesting IndieGogo campaign, for the Ladibird; a snap-on professional camera for the iPhone 5. Initially, I thought it was a brilliant idea, but then I started reading about the product, and I immediately became incredibly skeptical. Allow me to explain...
The sample images
First of all, the thing that made me wonder what's going on, were the sample images. They look fantastic, without a doubt, but when you look at the Ladibird video, you see that the product is just a 3D render. So that made me wonder: Where did the example photos come from? Right at the bottom of the page, they explain that the shots are taken with "a 50mm prime lens on a 12 megapixel Nikon D700".
Now, there's a lot of problems with this, in my mind: For one thing, the Nikon D700 is a high-end professional camera that cost USD $3000. It's also a full-frame camera, with a 36mm x 24mm sensor built in. The Nikon lens used (a 50mm f1/8) is also a mighty sharp piece of kit. Do you think it's fair to use photos taken with a pro-level camera as examples for what an iPhone accessory lens can do?
In the IndieGogo campaign, the Ladibird manufacturers do the following:
The thing that isn't clear to me, is why they are talking about a 'mirrorless sensor' as if that's a standard. Mirrorless cameras have wildly different sensor sizes; The Pentax Q has a 6.17 x 4.55 mm sensor. The Sony NEX-6 has a 23.5 x 15.6 mm sensor. The Leica M9 has a 36 x 24 mm sensor. And there are tons of sizes in between.
The lens spec itself, too, is fuzzy. They are talking about a "Ladibird 50mm (35mm equivalent) large aperture prime lens", which patently doesn't make sense, unless they have a sensor that is 45% larger than that found in the highest of high-end SLR cameras. A more likely explanation is that they have their terms mixed up, and that they have a lens which actually has a 35mm focal length (Which is roughly a 50mm equivalent on an APS-C size sensor), but it does worry me: Would you trust a lens designed by a company that isn't sure which way around the crop sensor conversion factors go?
Developing sharp lenses is an incredibly difficult and challenging task.
But what about the large sensor and 50mm?
The Ladibird guys have done a great marketing tasks, but as someone who's written a book on mirrorless cameras, and has technical edited a rather chunky stack of books about photography, I can't help but feel I'm somewhat qualified to evaluate this project, and it's setting off all manner of alarm bells.
In their marketing site, they've equaled small sensors with blurry photos. That's patently not true: The Nikon 1 series have tiny sensors in them, but are capable of producing fantastically sharp images. Similarly, my iPhone 5 has a miniscule sensor in it, a quick browse through the 'most interesting' photos taken with the iPhone 5 on Flickr reveals that many of them are tack-sharp works of art. This would infer that a small sensor is in and of itself no reason to buy a Ladibird.
The other argument they make is that the 50mm f/1.8 lens is cruise control to awesome photos. Now, in most cases that might well be true, but those specs alone aren't enough. "50mm" only means that the lens has a focal length of 50mm. There's nothing inherently better about this, and there are many examples of absolutely dreadful 50mm lenses out there. In fact, I could build a 50mm lens myself out of a couple of lens elements, a kitchen roll, and some Blu-Tack in about 20 minutes, but I can pretty much guarantee that the photo quality is going to be severely lacking.
So, is Ladibird a scam?
I have no way of knowing that, but the IndieGogo page does set off an awful lot of alarm bells.
I won't be backing the IndieGogo campaign myself, and I'll tell you why: I know how incredibly hard it is to build photography equipment, and so far, we haven't seen a single prototype or sample image from these guys. Even the mock-up image doesn't seem realistic (to have a 50mm focal length, the lens barrel would probably need to be longer), which makes me wonder how far along in the process they have come.
If the mockup image represents the current state of play, then I fear they're about to get a rude awakening if they think that $20,000 is enough money to develop a fully functional prototype of the Ladibird. For a product this advanced (Apple MFi; App development; Sensor design; Lens design; Testing; industrial design; production design; prototyping...), I'd estimate you may not be able to complete the full development cycle for less than $150,000. Bear in mind two things: $150k is a very low estimate for a product this advanced, and at the end of this phase, they will have perhaps half a dozen prototypes; they still wouldn't have created a single Ladibird for the Indiegogo backers.
Don't get me wrong, I really do want a product like the Ladibird to exist, but wouldn't part with any money until I've seen at least a couple of sample images.
The biggest worry is that the marketing material is such a hodge-podge of technical, factual, and physics-related inaccuracies... Let's put it this way: if Ladibird was a book, and it was passed to me for technical editing, I'd have to craft a very difficult letter to the publisher, suggesting that it's in a shape beyond where a tech-editor can help, recommending that the book was cancelled or seriously re-written. It certainly wouldn't be in a state to offer pre-selling it to the public.
Or, put in other words: I'd probably just wait until the product is available to buy in a store.
Small, very small
When you read the specs for the Pentax Q, you know intellectually that it's small, but it doesn't really hit home until you see it for yourself. It really is tiny. In fact, it's so dinky you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's a toy… before you hold it in your hand (just the one).
It definitely doesn't feel like a toy. There's a decent heft to it and nothing about its build feels tinny or plasticy. It's a camera that's been made to do business, despite its diminutive size. Fitted with the standard 8.5mm (47mm equivalent in 35mm format) f/1.9 lens, it slipped into my handbag or coat pocket, but not my jeans pocket.
So it came with me everywhere for almost a week, including a visit to my brother over the weekend, a walk in the park to photograph some wildlife, and a Christmas party where it generated plenty of oohs and aahs. It's these experiences on which I've based my review, so there aren't any painstakingly photographed charts to test white balance. But I'll admit to setting up a shot to test the filters when I felt a bit creative, and I wanted to take a closer look at the ISO, so I messed around doing that for a bit.
I got used to the layout and menu system fairly quickly. Sure, it was unfamiliar initially, but that was to be expected. You choose your mode, from fully manual to fully auto, using the dial on the top of the camera, where there's also the wheel to adjust aperture or shutter speed. There's a dial on the front that can accommodate your favourite filters and a green button on the back that you can customise to access your most-needed function.
The four-way controller on the back covers white balance, ISO, flash, and the timer. There are also the information and menu buttons to take you down into the guts of the camera. Seeing as the camera's so small, it's hardly a surprise that its buttons are, too. I coped fine with them, but anyone who's a touch bigger than me or has finger nails a sliver shorter than mine might struggle, let alone if you're a body-builder in your spare time.
The flash has a pop-up facility, which I found suitably amusing and of course is useful for preventing the curse of red-eye and ensuring that your extra light won't just bounce off of a longer lens. I was slightly concerned that it might take out my eye if I were to deploy it in a hurry, though.
The response time between switching on and being able to take a photo was good, and navigating between and adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO was intuitive. But when I began taking photos, I ran into a couple of problems.
Frustrations with focusing; irritability with exposure
First, I kept running into arguments with the autofocus. There would be occasions when it simply focused where it thought it should be focusing, not where I wanted it to focus. If I'd had it on auto mode, that might be just about understandable, but in fully manual, it's beyond comprehension and terribly frustrating. You don't get many second chances in photography and seeing them float by because of a tipsy autofocus was disappointing.
Second, every now and again the metering would seem to waltz away and have a party of its own, leaving my images wildly under-exposed. This wasn't nearly so prevalent as the autofocusing issue, but it did mean that I was more exasperated with a camera than was exactly healthy.
So what of the images? I've taken some photos that I really like and my favourites are up there for you to see. The colours weren't muddy or washed-out, although the white balance was occasionally off by a quarter country mile - so much so that my poor brother looked green in a few portraits - but that was nothing that a bit of post-processing couldn't fix. The noise levels didn't want to make me scratch out my eyes until at least ISO 800 or 1000, which is entirely reasonable.
When I compared the RAW and jpeg images straight from the camera, what struck me the most was the barrel distortion from the lens. The warped horizons on landscape shots was very noticeable, and I found the bent look in my office floor almost alarming. Sure, the jpeg option straight from the camera does correct it, and it's something that you can fix yourself in the RAW file in post-processing, but it's rather significant.
Fun with filters
There are more filters and options to do crazy things with colour and processing in the Q than I think I've had hot dinners this year. At first it was almost overwhelming, but as soon as you surrender to your childish desires to combine posterising with bleach-bypassing, or grimace at just how hideous you can make a perfectly decent picture look with selective colour, it's a lot of fun.
When it came to packing the Q into its box and sending it back, I was a lot more reluctant to do so than I thought I'd be. Despite the odd temper tantrum involving autofocusing or exposure, I've enjoyed playing with this camera over the past week or so, and doubtless I'd continue to if I had it for longer. But I've a sneaking suspicion that a great deal of this fun is reliant on knowing that I've a proper optical viewfinder and a much better sensor waiting for me in my dSLR, and my S95 slips into my jeans pocket, has a lens that's far more versatile than the 8.5mm standard lens on the Q, and produces images of about the same quality. If the Q were my only camera, I think I'd spend a fair chunk of my time feeling frustrated.
There's no denying that Pentax, Nikon, Olympus, they're all on to something with teeny-tiny interchangeable lens cameras. These are a significant development in the photographic world, but they're not there yet. So I can't recommend that you buy a Pentax Q when for less you could pick up a Canon S100, a Nikon P300, or an Olympus XZ-1 that delivers just about the same image quality with greater versatility and in a more compact package. One day, maybe; but not today.