Sunday, September 2, 2007

New segment: Village Idiot Discovers the Internets (VIDI)

I tried to find a good name for a recurring Sunday editorial-like post, but all the good names were taken. So instead of spending a couple of hours trying to wordsmith, I just picked up the silliest thing I could think, and that was VIDI (Village Idiot Discovers the Internets). This was partially inspired by a recent book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How today's internet is killing our culture" by Andrew Keen. For someone who blames the Internets for everything he seems to have a large internet foothold, and given his non-technical background, and his own logic, he is an amateur killing the internet culture because amateur online content such as his threatens to swamp the most vital technical information provided by the classically trained technology experts ;-)

As I promised, the first installment will not be about megapixel wars or noise. Nope! Instead it will be about another popular topic:


Waiting for the Prosumer Messiah
It's been a while since we had a series of prosumer cameras from all the major players. The Sony R1 is already two years old, which is already an eternity in digital camera terms. Others that may come to mind are the Minolta A-series, Nikon 88xx-series, Canon Pro1 and the G-series, Olympus C8080 (and predecessors), Kodak P880, Samsung Pro815, Panasonic LC-1 (and Leica equivalent), Sony F828/F727, etc. (For the purposes of this post, consider these cameras my definition of a prosumer).

But most of these companies operate(d) on SLR-priority. SLRs and lenses are/were their bread and butter. This is what they know to do best. So when technology and prices reached the point of sub-$1000 DSLRs of mass market appeal, they quietly withdrew from the prosumer market. This left a big gap and surpringly the companies without DSLRs did not try that hard to fill it. Of course part of the issue was the availability of sensors, you can't just dream of them and they appear! But this gap also provides an opportunity for one of the non-major players to have an almost uncontested breakaway success story, providing they can make a camera that is good enough to garner the attention and the $$$purchase$$$. So let's see who are the candidates to revitalize this segment:

One candidate was the Ricoh GX 100 as I wrote in a few weeks ago, Is the Ricoh GX100 the new prosumer messiah? This was written before the detailed dpreview review was published and put things in perspective. While Ricoh should be given a lot of credit for trying and for continuing to try to improve (firmware upgrades, new image engine in the brand new R7, and while a patient and experienced advanced photographer can work wonders out of the GX100 (and the GRD), they are not ready for prime-time just yet. Will the next installment, presumably a GRD2 and a GX120 improve enough so they can find a more general audience among photography enthusiasts? And how efficient/effective will the new Ricoh Engine that was introduced with the R7 be? The answers to these two questions no one knows just yet.

Fuji has stated that they are not going to get into the cut-throat business of sub-$1000 DSLRs, and they do not have their own lenses, so they are not operating on SLR-priority. Furthermore they can make their own sensors which gives them flexibility. And Fuji tried with the S9xxx series. Two cameras using 1/1.6" SuperCCD 9mp sensor with a noticable noise advantage over the competition. But Fuji's inability to provide image stabilization (optical or sensor-shift) partially kept these cameras from the spotlight - given that even $100 P&S from Panasonic had MegaOIS. Then came the F50fd announcement and with that sensor-shift stabilization with Fuji. But it also brought a 12mp sensor of the same size. The questions abound as to whether the noise advantage Fuji clearly had with the 6mp magic sensor will almost disappear with this guy. And that's of course assuming that Fuji replaces the S9000 and
S9100 with the S9200 (12mp sensor with sensor-shift stabilization). But this is another possibility to keep in mind...

Next let's take a look at Kodak. With DSLRs long in their rear-view mirror, Kodak has been trying different things. And they have not been afraid to try. They gave us dual-CCD/dual-lens cameras, a camera starting 24mm wide (P880), an $80 camera with a CMOS sensor (upcoming Easyshare C513), budget-priced superzooms, etc. The P880 was a camera that created a lot of intrigue after its price dropped significantly. Kodak could perhaps attempt to build upon the limited success of this camera and zoom into the wide open (24mm pun?) gap in the prosumer segment. But given that the P-series has gone from two cameras in 2005, to one in 2006 and zero in 2007, don't hold your breath :-(

Next we have the Sigma DP-1, a cousin of the
Sigma SD14 DSLR. Unfortunately the Sigma/Foveon track record of new camera delivery is based on a conveyor belt made of turtles, so while this camera looks very intriguing and promising on paper, when will we actually see it? Does anyone remember the Polaroid/Foveon forever and a day camera? But if it does arrive, and if the sensor is on par, and if Sigma's experience with lenses translates into a very nice glued-in lens, and if the market doesn't move to new technologies by then, then it could create a big stir. Another item to look out for, but don't hold your breath

Next we have the "rangefinder-size prosumers" which also disappeared but were forced back by the
Panasonic LX-series, which in turn forced Canon first to introduce the
GINO (G7), and then add RAW to the
GINO (G9). This also got Nikon to produce an even smaller RF-lite, the P5000/P5100 but sadly no RAW in either one.

And what about Panasonic? The LC-1 was intended as a showcase flagship camera, and could perhaps be a candidate body/design for one with a larger sensor.
Panasonic's latest DSLR, the L10, is priced as a kit at $1300 and that leaves Panasonic plenty of room for a camera priced underneath it. Given the price/specs of the L10, it is not intended to be a mass-market DSLR either (if it was, it would have been priced under $1000). But this one is more of a dream or wild shot. On a more realistic level, we have the FZ-series, which grew from the tiny and humble FZ-1 to the
big daddy FZ50. And while the Leicasonic gets a lot of compliments for its nicely designed lens, Venus is nowhere near as beautiful as the name might suggest. Further refinements here, and perhaps a wider angle lens, and a possible FZ60 could be a contender.

Samsung woke up one day and delivered the Pro815 (dramatization, it takes a lot longer to do that), and then disappeared again from making any mid-range/advanced non-DSLRs. Their single-minded focus right now appears to be to become the #3 in market share for 2007 (dethrone Kodak) and they have a good chance of doing it - unless the $80 C513 arrives on time and spoils their party. Given that their interest is market share, it is more unlikely that they will attempt a more advanced NV-inspired camera or a Pro815-inspired camera. Perhaps they are saving those experiments once they establish themselves as a top 3 player...

As far as the rest of the companies, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony-Minolta, Pentax, and HP they have not shown any signs of any further interest in new prosumer designs.

One thing that I have to mention: it would be great if Sony resurrrected the Minolta A-series cameras. It could fit right below the A100 (or the follow-up) in their product line-up in terms of price. Perhaps they could scale it down to a 1/1.7" sensor since the 2/3" sensor is in the museums. It could be their answer to the Canon G7/G9, Panasonic LX2/FZ50 and Ricoh GX100.

If you think I have forgotten the new 18x superzooms with RAW, I haven't! And while RAW qualifies them as RAWsumers, the tiny 1/2.5" or 1/2.35" sensors are just too tiny to deliver a "prosumer-level" camera.

ps1> The Messiah reference is intended as an homage to Frank Herbert's Dune, which by the way appears to be heading for its 3rd adaptation on film, this time on the silver screen according to SyfyPortal.com
ps2> I consider proof-reading a luxury so please forgive typos and non-perfect sentences.

Items mentioned in today's VIDI segment:

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