Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Another E-Series Wishlist

I would like to thank Bill for letting me be a guest writer on his excellent site. My name's Matthew, and I'm both a photographer and a camera enthusiast. I can normally be found idly writing reviews, but Bill has kindly offered me the opportunity to add my thoughts to his discussion of the future of the E-series cameras. While I'm certainly a friend of Olympus, using both an E-1 and E-3, my primary cameras are a D700 for 'serious' and a GH1 for 'fun' photography. Those two have shaped a lot of my thinking about what works and what's important, and what I want to see in the next top-level E-series SLR.

Three Things:
There's currently a division between those who insist on optical viewfinders and those who think that the migration to electronic finders is inevitable. Put another way, it's between those who haven't used the EVF on a G1, GH1, or E-P2, and those who have. Having an optical finder as good as the E-3's is hardly a tragedy, but an electronic finder with a live-view camera can show better information than just the current shooting settings.

Micro-4/3 cameras already have live histograms, but it's based on a theoretical jpeg. How an 8-bit tonal scale maps out is irrelevant these days, and the jpeg conversion may have very little in common with what the sensor is actually recording. Fix that - show the real exposure range, with true clipping levels. How I work that into the displayable dynamic range of my finished image is my own business.

Another useful exposure tool is the zebra pattern that camcorders can use as a less-annoying alternative to our flashing highlight warning, and they show it on the preview image. This would provide immediate and useful information that's simpler than a histogram and easier to interpret.

Finally, there's the matter of focusing. Phase-detect focus, and its limited focus points, is an OVF work-around with a number of problems. Contrast-detection is getting smarter, faster, and allows more options. Face detection, subject tracking, and placing variably-sized focus areas (almost) anywhere in the frame are already established technologies. What we lack is an easy way to see what will be sharpest in our photos.

In his Luminous-Landscape article on 'Video DSLRs vs Camcorders', Michael Reichmann discusses both 'zebraing' and Peaking, which is the term for having a camcorder emphasize the area of greatest sharpness. Adding an optional colour halo to the sharpest area would be a vast improvement for manual focus, and need be no more distracting than the little boxes that currently show the general area that the autofocus system has selected. Panasonic already does this in its high-end video cameras - it's an existing technology that just needs to make the conceptual leap. Make it an option for focus confirmation during autofocus as well - and make it live, so that we can see when we've shifted the camera - and CDAF cameras will be able to offer something that old SLRs can't match.

Give me those three things - a raw histogram, peaking focus confirmation, and zebra exposure warnings - in an EVF camera and I'll buy it. The rest are just details.

Playing Cards:
I would like the next pro E-series camera to have dual SD card slots. They've made the leap to SD with the digital Pens, and now its time for the SLRs to follow as well. Asking to keep the CF slot and have SD to replace the vestigial flipper of the current xD slot is just predicting the obvious - it's time for Olympus to be bold and get ahead of the curve. Shake off the ghost of Smartmedia past - SD cards are fast enough, common enough, and durable enough for professional use. Twin cards in the same format allows us to have better interchangeability while carrying less stuff. It's a win-win.

And while they're at it, give us the ability to alternate the cards for each shot. Photos 1-3-5 go on one card, photos 2-4-6 go on the other. With the current fill-and-flip system used by Canon and Nikon, it will be no consolation to the bride that only the photos from the ceremony OR the reception are preserved - it's much better to lose the best photo of the kiss but preserve the ones that were shot a split-second before and a split-second after it.

If the next E-Pro camera records video, then also give us the option to put video only on one card, and stills only on the other. This will give new life to the slower, but cheaper, Class 4 cards. Personally, I'm on the fence about video; it's a nice step-up feature in my GH1 that I might use some day, but I've also watched many people buy Canon SLRs because they record 1080 'full' HD versus Nikon's 1440x720 video. Kirk Tuck makes a good case in his post on the future of the E-system for including better sound controls, input, and monitoring. Without that, our fancy video-SLRs become nothing more than MOS cameras, and we need a separate audio recorder to plug our microphones into. The early selling point of integrating video was that journalists would no longer need a separate video camera; now they need to step it up so that film-makers don't need a separate sound source.

The View:
Articulated LCDs are fantastic. How about going one step further, and building an articulating EVF into the camera body? Given how useful a high-resolution EVF is going to become, being able to pivot it upwards will be fantastic for working from a tripod.

Bill touched on this as well: I have a love-hate relationship with the EVF eye-sensor on my GH1. I love that it activates the EVF when I raise the camera to my eye. I hate that it turns the LCD off when I flip the screen out and cradle it for a steadier low-level shot. A simple sensor to tell when the LCD is deployed would be an elegant solution, and shouldn't be difficult to implement.

Finally, grid lines in on the LCD and EVF are lingering source of irritation. Somehow they haven't evolved beyond the simple electronic overlays of the last decade. Make them thinner, so that they actually mean something. And make them something other than white. Dedicate a little computing power to make them translucent, or have them invert the colour or tonality of what's underneath them. As EVFs take over and LCDs get better, this will become more important.

Give it time:
Then there are the things that will continue to improve. EVFs and LCDs will get better, contrast-detect autofocus will get faster, tracking will get smarter. Dynamic range will improve, noise will get lower, and pixel counts will (eventually) increase. This is the natural way of things. It also goes without saying that the body should be weather-sealed and solidly built; this is the natural way of a top-tier Olympus SLR.

In his review of the E-P2, Bill wrote "I purchased this camera in part to participate in the next step of camera evolution." That's something that resonated very strongly with me. If what I'm describing sounds like an advanced hybrid of the GH1 and E-3, it's not a coincidence. William Gibson has said that the future is already here, but it isn't evenly distributed yet. What we have now, from Olympus and others, is great. If the future is a logical extrapolation of the present, then what we will have will be even better, no matter what form it takes.

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