"Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

Camera Obsession

12/10/14, 11:19 AM

I bought another camera yesterday, an Olympus Stylus XZ-2. This would be unremarkable but for the fact that I already have three four-thirds DSLR bodies, five micro-four-thirds bodies, an XZ-1 and an XZ-10; and I'd only just purchased the fifth micro-four-thirds body a week earlier when Olympus was offering a 25% discount on their refurbished cameras.

Maybe I need an intervention?

Well, maybe I do. The thing is, we're living in a "best of times, worst of times" era for photographers and camera manufacturers. Moore's Law has disrupted the camera business, and the ubiquity of good quality cameras has disrupted the photography business as well. Happily, I'm in neither of those businesses, so I'm pretty much sitting in the bleachers on the "best of times" side of the field. These cameras are, in some ways, souvenirs.

I don't have my first digital camera anymore, or cameras two through seven either. I do have cameras eight through eighteen, though eleven was disassembled after it was irreparably damaged. I've kept the sensor and the logic board, just because I thought they were cool. Cameras one and two died due to old age and were disassembled though no parts were kept. Camera three was a Canon A-series that developed the dreaded E-error and I don't recall its ultimate disposition. Cameras four through seven were given away to various people in good working order and I hope the recipients got good service from them. I expect that most of them are no longer functioning.

It's like anything in technology, there's a steep improvement curve, were price goes down and performance goes up and last year's "new hotness" is this year's "old and busted." Then about 2007-2008 we started hitting the knee in the curve. Improvements continued apace, but the performance of cameras from those years remains remarkably acceptable even today. Given the fact that most images are only ever shared on the web and never printed, they give outstanding performance.

So, if those cameras were "good enough," why even buy any more cameras? (A question camera manufacturers don't want you to dwell on. At all.) Well, that's the hobby aspect. As new capabilities are developed, I want to try them. Sadly, I am a product of my society and culture and I like to acquire things. I'm working on that. But it's also kind of a record of the history of the industry, and one that is relatively easy to acquire and maintain.

If you're my age (in your very youthful fifties), you may recall the micro-computer revolution. There were dozens of manufacturers and new models were being released all the time, with manufacturers each trying to differentiate their product from the others. We had Apple, Commodore, Atari, Texas Instruments, Tandy/Radio Shack, Timex/Sinclair, I think Epson had a machine, Kaypro, and a whole bunch of CP/M, Z-80/S-100 bus manufacturers that I didn't follow very closely. It was exciting watching all the competition and innovation take place.

Then IBM entered the market, effectively giving it to Microsoft, and consolidation took place and innovation largely ceased, or at least the pace dropped significantly. Which can be a good thing in terms of price and product adoption. It almost killed Apple, but they survived, so at least we're not all living in a Microsoft Windows monopoly. Google may end up owning the world, except hubris has a way of being a self-correcting force in the universe.

The same thing has been taking place with cameras and photography over the past couple of decades, although it has really been the advent of the smart phone with its built-in camera that has really disrupted the market.

Right now we're in the early stages of consolidation in the camera industry. Canon and Nikon remain the dominant players, and I think are likely to survive though they are somewhat vulnerable to losing their dominant positions. Olympus is doing some remarkably innovative things trying to be competitive in the market, though many of them have been unsuccessful. But an unsuccessful product isn't necessarily a bad product. Much like Beta was better than VHS, though VHS went on to market dominance. Sony, Fuji, Panasonic and Pentax are all doing some fairly innovative things to try and remain competitive in the marketplace.

So it's a very exciting time to be watching the camera industry, and to be someone who likes taking pictures!

For a while, many of the big names were making money hand over fist selling small digital point-and-shoot cameras. It was ridiculous watching the number of new models being introduced all the time as everybody tried to compete for that market. Then the smart phone came along and that market simply vanished. So then manufacturers had to try to find products people would buy with decent profit margins. One of those efforts was the serious compact.

There have always been serious compact cameras, these are cameras with fixed lenses, usually zooms, with fairly large apertures, manual controls, data saved in RAW format, but they didn't receive the same kind of attention from either manufacturers or consumers that the little point-and-shoots did. When the point-and-shoot market disappeared, manufacturers began to give their serious compacts more attention. Either adding serious features to point-and-shoot models, or adding consumer-interest features to serious compacts. The Canon S-90 is perhaps a good example of the former, released in 2009; while Olympus' XZ-1 is an example of the latter, released in 2011.

A compact camera is one that you can carry with you easily, either in a pocket or perhaps hanging from your wrist. For many applications, the smart phone is a perfectly useful camera. But there are limitations with the smart phone, and slowly but surely these are being reduced; but for now, if you really like taking pictures, you'll inevitably bump up against the limitations of a smart phone camera module.

So manufacturers have packed many advanced features into some very compact cameras, hoping you'll pay big bucks to have that kind of power and flexibility readily and conveniently at hand. For the most part, I'm not sure it's working. The size advantage isn't significantly better than many of the compact mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras on the market, and the price hasn't been low enough to entice the casual shooter who might want a better camera than his or her phone.

Olympus introduced three top-tier serious compacts, the XZ-1, XZ-2 and the XZ-10. The 1 and 2 share the same zoom lens mechanism, while the 10 is a much smaller body, with a slightly longer zoom and smaller sensor.

The significant physical properties that mark the XZ-1 and XZ-2 as serious compacts are the bright lens aperture, f1.8 at the wide end to f2.5 at the long end of the zoom; the fairly large (for a compact camera of this time) sensor size; and the use of sensor shift image stabilization. The combination of all three should, in theory, offer significant advantages in lower light situations that are typically the bane of compact camera performance. For the most part, experience matches the theory, but it's not magic and there are limitations. Also marking the XZ-1 and XZ-2 as "serious" compacts is the presence of a hot shoe for an external flash unit, and the fact that the built-in flash can be used to remotely control an off-camera Olympus flash unit.

Compact cameras have typically not included a viewfinder, as that adds to the camera's size, so they chiefly rely on the LCD display on the back of the camera to compose the shot. Olympus added an accessory port to its cameras that afforded the ability to attach an electronic viewfinder to the camera for use in bright sunlight when composing using the LCD can be challenging.

Olympus sought to differentiate its serious compacts from its competitors by adding some creative or fun features to its offerings, chiefly in the form of "art filters."

I believe art filters were first introduced by Olympus on the E-30 DSLR, and they've been incorporated into every "serious" product offering ever since. The subject of art filters is often debated, derided as a "gimmick." I happen to like them, and perhaps another time I'll offer my thoughts on them.

So these were very capable little bodies with some remarkable features, and they came at a fairly high price as well. "Serious" cameras should cost serious money! Unfortunately for Olympus (but fortunately for me), they did not do exceptionally well in the marketplace. When the XZ-2 debuted, a redoubled effort to appeal to the apparently non-existent serious compact customer, Oly had to sell off unsold inventory of the XZ-1. I bought mine in October 2012 for $199.00, $300 off the $499.00 price at introduction. Two hundred dollars for the kind of capability present in that small package was a fair price in 2012, and I've enjoyed using my XZ-1 very much in the two years I've owned it. It's worth mentioning that once the inventory was largely blown out, you couldn't find an XZ-1 for less than $249.00 anywhere, often more.

The XZ-2 offers some nice improvements over the XZ-1, and it's an example of a kind of product we're unlikely to see ever again. So when Amazon announced they were blowing out their inventory of XZ-2 cameras at $179.00 (less than than the XZ-1 two years earier!), I bought one.

I do want to shoot with it, but I also want to own this little bit of camera history.

It should arrive tomorrow.

Still Blogging

12/10/14, 11:15 AM

So I re-activate my Facebook account, and I disappear from Nice Marmot. Say it ain't so!

Well, it ain't so.

Frankly, November was just an abysmally bad month. Horrible. Couldn't really bring myself to write very much. Sadly, December hasn't started out much better, so I guess I should just get used to it.

So here we go! The lights are still on, and I'm still home.