Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pixel Binning is Here!

Nokia 808 PureView, photo courtesy of Nokia

With the announcement of Nokia’s new camera/cell phone combo, the 808 PureView with a sensor resolution of 41 MP, the subject of pixel binning is becoming a hot topic. Starting with a physically large sensor—somewhere in size between the usual digital compacts and APS-C sensors—the 808 will offer uncommonly high resolution images, lossless digital 3X zooming, a 5-element Carl Zeiss lens, and exceptional low light performance. It’s this last quality where pixel binning comes into play.

Pixel binning has been used in astro-photography and micro-photography. In pixel binning, adjacent pixels are processed and combined into one large sensor, sometimes called a “super pixel.” The advantage of this is when you combine the light gathering capabilities of four pixels into one, you increase the amount of light you are working with in the image. So, the result is reduced noise in the image. That’s why it is used in astro-photography, where you have very low light subjects and a lot of black in the image. You end up with noise-less, clean images. Turns out, it works in regular photography, too.

Photo taken with Nokia 808 PureView, courtesy of Nokia

Nokia uses the same technology in the 808 PureView, though they are not saying exactly how many pixels are being combined into one super pixel. However, the samples they are showing makes the reduction of noise significant in the 808. But nothing can be gained without some costs, and in this case, the cost is resolution. This makes sense, because when you have to use several pixels to give you, in the end, one pixel of resolution, you will need to start off with a lot of pixels to end up with anything useful. So in the case of the Nokia 808 PureView, though the sensor is 41 MP, with pixel binning you will actually be shooting in resolutions of no more than 8 MP. That’s quite a drop, but what you gain is a very clean image with little or no noise. And this is what most photographers seem to be asking from their cameras, to be able to shoot at lower light levels and still have noise-free images. Pixel binning is the way to achieve this and without a doubt, this technology will be used in more cameras in the near future.
 Example of Pixel Binning, photo courtesy of Fujifilm

Sony is rumored to be using pixel binning in their compact cameras coming out later this year. It makes sense that this will show up in DSLRs, especially for cameras targeting photojournalists. It wouldn’t surprise me that this is why the new full-frame Canon EOS-1D X has a sensor resolution of 18 MP. Maybe it actually has a much higher resolution sensor but uses pixel binning to reduce noise and the pixel count down to that 18 MP. That would make sense, but of course, I have no idea if this is true. It’s just a thought that occurred to me. Anyway, pixel binning is here and it’s a good idea. You will be seeing more of it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The New Olympus OM-D EM-5

Okay, it's time to eat some crow. Before it came out, I guessed that the new Olympus OM-D camera would feature a full-frame, 35mm-sized sensor. Well, I was wrong. As I wrote before, I saw an image of the camera with a 45mm, f/1.8 lens on it, which is nearly a normal lens for the 35mm format, so I thought this indicated it was full-frame. And like I said, I was wrong about that.

The OM-D is, in fact, a Micro 4/3s camera, like the PEN series Olympus is already making. I have to admit, I am a little disappointed, though I understand it. The OM-D cameras will fit nicely into an already established system, using the same lenses, but will appeal to a different kind of customer. Okay, I get it. But even though it looks like an SLR with a pentaprism hump on top, when you are looking through the camera, you are looking at a small electronic screen and no mirror is involved in the viewing. This is the same as the Panasonic GH2 camera.

Looking at the OM-D EM-5, it appears to be a interesting choice. By the way, that's its full name, though what happened to models 1 through 4, I don't know. Maybe it's a reference to the old days of the OM 35mm cameras, when Olympus only made it up to an OM-4 in their line-up. I guess that was an OM-4T. Anyway, here are some of the main features.

  • 16.1 MP High-Speed Live MOS sensor
  • 5-axis image stabilization, in body for stills and movies
  • 1.55 million-dot EVF for the internal viewing screen with 100% viewing
  • Automatic switching between internal EVF and external, tilting OLED touch screen
  • Dust-proof and splash-proof
  • ISO up to 25600
  • Full HD-Movie recording in MPEG4
  • 9 frames per second without AF, 4.2 fps with AF
  • Black and Chrome versions of the body

There's also some new lenses announced for the camera. A 75mm f/1.8 and a 60mm f/2.8 Macro. While this doesn't appear to be as revolutionary a development as the original OM cameras, the OM-D EM-5 is still a welcome addition to the Olympus line-up. The features seem solid and the controls are simple and direct, just like the old days. Seems like a winner.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Nikon Debuts New Camera

Nikon has announced the D800, which replaces the popular D700, which was the go-to camera for a lot of pros. The D800 has a 36 MP full-frame sensor, which makes it the current champ in terms of pixel count. It, of course, has full HD video capability, an ISO range from 50 to 25,600, and will do 4 frames per second shooting.

The most interesting fact about this camera is that it will be available in two different models. The difference is that you have the choice of buying the camera with or without an anti-aliasing filter. One of the facts of life with digital cameras is that the small segment nature of the image--that is, the pixels in the sensor break up the images into very small chunks--tends to create visual interference in subjects with small, regular details. These can be subjects like window screening, distant corrugated metal, and/or most kinds of cloth. The patterns of these materials combine and interfere with the pixelated digital image, creating false patterns and wave-like colorations called moire. When this happens, it can be very disturbing.

Well, to eliminate moire in digital cameras, manufacturers came up with anti-aliasing filters, which are placed in front of the sensor. They slightly diffuse the image, which gets rid of the moire. However, the cost is that the image is slightly diffused, that is, it is slightly soft or not sharp, in other words. This usually is not much of a problem, because nearly all 35mm shaped DSLRs use anti-aliasing filters, and most people don't think their Nikon D700's and their Canon 5D Mark II's are anything less that great.. The only exceptions to this are the Leica M8 and M9 cameras and the new Fuji X-Pro 1 camera. Those don't use anti-aliasing filters and that is a big part of the reason why the M9 is capable of recording such amazing amounts of detail. There is nothing in front of the sensor to degrade the image at all.

Now, you will be able to get a D800E, which means that it will not have an anti-aliasing filter. This fact coupled with the 36 MP sensor adds up to one seriously high-resolution camera. Fashion photographers, who deal with cloth all the time, will not want this camera, and photojournalists probably won't care, but advertising, commercial, and fine art photographers should really be interested in this one. This is a bold and smart choice for Nikon!