Technology

The world's first μ4/3 professional video camera

On Sunday, Panasonic announced that they’ll be making the world’s first professional micro four thirds video camera.

The Panasonic AG-AF100 professional video camera, due for release end 2010

The AG-AF100 will be able to use any of the existing lenses available to the μ4/3 system, but of course it is especially well suited to Panasonic’s silent designed-for-video Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm lens, which was announced along with their GH1 camera.

Up to now the world of large-sensor video cameras, inhabited by exclusive cameras like the Red One, has been staggeringly expensive. A body would set you back something in the order of $17,000, and then you still need to add lenses which can easily go for $4000 a pop. Micro 4/3 system lenses are much, much cheaper than this, and most of them are razor sharp, easily providing enough detail for a resolution-hungry 12 megapixel sensor, let alone lowly 2-megapixel HD. Large-aperture primes like the 20mm f/1.7 pancake should also provide sufficiently shallow depth of field for some creative possibilities.

Professional large-sensor video cameras like the Red One were traditionally unaffordable. Is this about to change?

I’m not really into videophotography, but the point I want to make here is that all signs point to a ever growing overlap between mid-rage digital photography and mid-range professional videophotography. The shallow depth-of-field and excellent low-light ability offered by large sensor cameras was always unaffordably expensive to the video community, whereas photo cameras just couldn’t deliver the sustained resolution of HD video at proper video frame rates. With microprocessors getting faster and memory cards getting cheaper, these two limitations are now all but history.

To show you how far digital still camera technology has intruded into the realm of video, you need only to look at the news. Today I read that the season finale of the popular US TV series “House” was filmed entirely on a Canon 5D MkII DSLR, thereby giving the producers the ability to get some beautifully shallow depth of field.

If it indeed proves popular in the video community, the AG-AF100 will provide yet another boost to μ4/3 system, inspiring more lenses and wider use. Folks, Panasonic might just have a winner!

The dangers of having a BIG camera

Over the recent days there was a lot of media coverage due to fresh video evidence on the tragic death of Namir Noor-Eldeen, an Iraqi photographer working for Reuters.

A contributing factor in his accidental killing was when the gunner in an American Apache helicopter mistook his camera for an RPG.

Zoom lens: mistaken for an RPG

Zoom lens: mistaken for an RPG

Of course this is an almost-absurd event. War photographers might often actually be protected by their large and obvious cameras, identifying them as presumably neutral observers.
But this serves a good introduction to the point I actually want to make – the “best” camera is often not the best camera to have. You might be encumbered by it, or even worse, might not have it with you at all.

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Kodak announces Aromatography!

1 April 2010

Throughout the history of photography, the essential experience was limited to capturing light. Kodak, however, is set to change all of that. Today, they announce aromatography, a revolutionary way of capturing both light and aromatic scents from the world around you.

Kodak's aromaphotography combines sight and smell - both in digital photography and print

Imagine seeing an image of a field of wildflowers and the experiencing all the delicate and complex aromas that accompany the visual experience. It’s no longer just a dream, thanks to recent breakthroughs in Neuro-Optic-Nasal-Sense Imaging.

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Samsung’s advance

Samsung has been making cameras for some time now, but (at least I) never really took them seriously. Things might be changing…

Why? Because it looks like they’re doing something similar to Panasonic. But isn’t the obvious deal-breaking difference that Panasonic is Japanese, and Samsung Korean? Please bear with me…
Both Samsung and Panasonic are huge, well-known mega-companies.  Both make lots of different stuff. Panasonic Corporation used to make bicycles, makes every kind of imaginable electronics, and even acts as a mayor sponsor in Formula 1. The Samsung group is even more diverse, making electronics, ships (yes – those big things sailing the world’s oceans) and even being involved in construction as well as soccer and Olympic sponsorship. You could think that this lack of (ahem) “focus” would make them bad at producing cameras, but then you could be wrong.

Why do I put this logo in my "Samsung" article? Read to see why...

Panasonic came to the digital camera party around 2001, which is later than the classical photographic big boys such as Nikon and Canon. Sure, they’re Japanese, and the Japanese have a knack for making good cameras. But they had to be content with a teeny tiny market share compared to the big boys, who were solidly into digital photography by the mid 90’s.

The Lumix FZ3 was the first Panasonic camera to catch my eye. Great lens, and great ergonomics.

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An exquisite tribute to film and architecture

A friend of mine recently directed me to the beautiful tribute to architecture and its (video)photographic representation, “The Third and The Seventh” by “Alex Roman” on Vimeo.

Below is an edited shortened version on youtube (I still recommend the full 13 minute version linked to above)

If you want to read an interview with the creator of this amazing piece of art you can follow this link.

On exchangeable lenses for small cameras

A small fast prime goes wonderfully with a micro 4/3 camera. The small Nikon D3000 with its small 35mm f/1.8 looks huge by comparison.

My favourite camera review site, DPReview, just posted a short article on desirable lenses for small (read: Micro 4/3 and Samsung NX) cameras. This nicely complements my recent post on the rise and fall of the digital SLR.

The review can be found here.

As a user of a mid size DSLR I completely agree with the article – when at a social event I’d prefer to swap my Nikon D80 with its 35mm f/1.8 lens for a Panasonic GF1 with 20mm f/1.7.

The rise and fall of the digital SLR

During the latter days of film photography, almost every photographer used 35mm film, and almost every serious photographer used a 35mm film SLR. In the early days of digital photography the SLR was almost forgotten, only to make a huge comeback since 2003. There are signs that this is again to change. Why? This blog post will try to sum it up.

SLR is an acronym for “single lens reflex”, and means that the photographer physically looks through the lens by means of a rather complex mirror and prism setup. In the film days this was the only way to accurately show a photographer how his picture was going to look, since his eye was physically seeing the same image that was going to be projected onto the film when the shutter was pressed.

The complex path that light travels in a (digital) SLR camera

Compact “point and shoot” cameras had separate optical viewfinders through which the user framed the picture, but suffered from parallax error (especially when looking at close subjects), and could not properly show focus, depth of field or exposure.

A 35mm point and shoot camera

All of this changed with the advent of digital photography.

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It was a Nobel cause

A CCD sensor

A CCD sensor

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award one half of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor“. Willard and Boyle developed the first CCD sensor 40 years ago while working at Bell Labs. Luckily both of them are still alive to claim their prize, which just shows the advantage of being brilliant when you’re young!

Despite being superseded by the CMOS sensor in modern DSLR cameras, the CCD (Charged Coupled Device) remains the sensor of choice in almost all other digital cameras, ranging all the way from the cheapest cell phone to the space-grade sensor in the Hubble Space Telescope.

Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and the founder of the Nobel prize, wrote in is final will that the prizes should go to  “those who … shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. ” And a worthy and noble cause it is!

A Nobel prize medal

A Nobel prize medal

Computational Cameras @ SIGGRAPH

Refocussing a single light-field photograph

Refocussing a single light-field photograph

Last time I blogged about the interesting talk given by Will Wright at this year’s SIGGRAPH conference. Will’s talk was a spell-binding overview of current visualization and entertainment trends, and the role that human psychology and aesthetics plays within it. However, SIGGRAPH also has a more facts-and-numbers side – there actually is an academic conference hiding between all the glitz and glamour. (The one with technical papers.)

Now when I say “conference” I immediately conjure up images of badly dressed nerds in exotic locations, getting all excited about mind-numbingly boring topics, and then getting drunk and trying to hit on the only attractive girl among the several hundred conference-goers. But in SIGGRAPH’s case, at least, the topics are not all that mind-numbingly boring. Because in addition to the academic quality enforced by the reviewers, there is also a strong emphasis on originality, and a “what can this be used for, and does it look cool?” criteria.

There were several very interesting sessions, some of which focused on

  • Realistic simulation of fluid, fire, and computer animation physics
  • Human-computer interaction (Holographic teleconferencing with eye tracking, 3D with focused-ultrasound force-feedback)
  • Smart image editing (Resizing images without visibly cropping or distorting the content, and automatic black-and-white to colour conversion)
  • Making deformable 3D computer meshes, and then doing crazy things to them – like squashing a bunny and ripping a cow in two
  • 3D visualization of scientific data – complete with 3D glasses! (watching the Sun’s erupting surface, or travelling through an Egyptian mummy)

For this blog post, however, I want to talk about the “computational cameras” session. These talks might give you a glimpse into the future of photography…

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Will Wright @ SIGGRAPH

Will Wright

I am writing this post from the floor of SIGGRAPH 2009, this year being held in New Orleans, USA.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a keynote talk by Will Wright, the designer behind several landmark games such as SimCity, The Sims, and Spore. He presented an entertaining and panoramic talk entitled “Playing with Perception” which covered topics involving human psychology, visual processing, game design and the interrelatedness of multimedia technology. During his hour behind the microphone he swept through a staggering 270 slides, thereby wildly breaking the golden rule of  “one slide per minute”, but coming from him, it worked. Respect.

I am guessing here, but from his talk I deduced that he is also a hobby photographer, and he continued to dedicate several of his many slides to this topic. Here are a few of the points which caught my attention:

  • New technology fails to have its intented impact where there’s a misunderstanding, or ignorance of, human psychology.
  • Several decades ago everyone expected 3D imaging and displays to be widespread by the turn of the century. However, 2D photographic effects (like shallow depth-of-field) are used to great effect in movies and photography, where it focusses our attention where the director intended. This lack in 3D makes the experience poorer rather than richer. (For a live concert broadcast experience, however, 3D works well, since here we demand to focus our attention freely in an immersive “I’m there” experience.)
  • Visual art (painting) gradually evolved from crude rock painting to photorealism, before in recent times further developing into subjective and emotion-driven abstraction. The same may hold for animation and photography, at least in some contexts.
  • Case in point tilt-shift photography is taking us further away from reality, and yet has immense emotional appeal. A possible reason is that the toy-like appearance of the photographed reality gives us the feeling of being able to manipulate and play with the scene (à la SimCity) – this pleases our senses.
  • Being behind a camera lens gives you the ability to see the world in new ways, and trains your perception. After a while you see creative angles in everyday objects, even when your camera is not with you.
  • With the addition of digital and CG tools, film makers have the ability to create (almost) any conceivable image on screen – the question is therefore no longer “what is possible to create?”, but purely “what should we create?”

Indeed, what should we create? It’s often amazing to see how extremely simple technologies can be enormously immersive. A clear favourite of mine is this music video, which doesn’t make use of any computer animation. Digital effects can greatly enrich our experience, but the art lies in knowing when, and how much, it is needed.

Looking at his professional success it is clear that Will deeply understands the aesthetics of interactive technology. And this is the exactly what I admire in SIGGRAPH  – it brings technical innovation and aesthetics together in a single venue – something rare indeed.

Here’s to innovation, beauty and perception!

PS: Since writing the above blog, I have seen the 3D CG session featuring mind expanding scientific visualisation from NASA Goddard’s space flight centre. Stereoscopic 3D showing the sun’s coronal mass ejections in the UV spectrum (photographed in stereo by the twin SOHO spacecraft), a visualization of deep-ocean currents, seasonal ice cap variations, and much more. This was followed by a biomedical visualization tour of CTs obtained from 3000 year old Egyptian mummies. And then there were the animated shorts of Pixar, followed by an excerpt from U2 – live in 3D.

3D is indeed amazing when used correctly – it is just taking long to mature. When it comes into its own it will blow your mind – wow!