The Cold Pixels

Turns out physics is (more and more) setting performance limits on digital cameras. (Title is a reference to the controversial Tom Godwin story “The Cold Equations”).

I’ve been maintaining two camera systems for a while now—Nikon, and Micro Four Thirds (my bodies have all been Olympus). That developed sort-of accidentally; I got an E-PL2 to replace a Panasonic LX3 as my “point and shoot”. But of course, over time, lenses accumulated, and it started to be a significant camera for more than just snapshots. And when I upgraded to an OM-D EM-5 it was pretty good at video, too (most of my work on the Cats Laughing reunion concert at Minicon 50 was done with it). And after the body upgrade it became my main camera, except for sports action (almost all roller derby) and nasty low-light (often music in bars).

Having both systems leads to having the wrong one, or carrying both, on trips. And to ongoing expenses. And a certain level of duplicate lenses.  And to having only a single body on either side.

And, just recently, the OM-D EM-5 body has packed it in (“beyond service life” according to Olympus service). This kind of brings the question of just what the heck I should do to a head. Without spending too much money, of course.

The Nikon gear (both what I have, and the models I might buy) is an old-school DSLR. Viewing is optically, through the taking lens, via a pentaprism and a moving mirror, which means I have to line my eye up with the lens to see anything (crawling on the ground or whatever as necessary), and that in low-light situations it can be hard to see.  It also means manual focus is hard, since the view can be dim and the focusing screen is not optimized for manual focus.  Auto-focus is by phase-detect sensors in the bottom of the body, fed by semi-transparent spots on the moving mirror plus pivoting sub-mirrors on the back (how does that ever work?).

The Micro Four Thirds gear is of the more modern “mirrorless” design. There’s no big mirror flapping around to make noise and cause shake. Older models including my dead one use contrast-detect auto-focus based on the data from the main image sensor; some more recent ones like the OM-D EM-1 mark II and the Sony A7R II integrate phase-detection AF sensors on the main sensor, making AF much faster (phase-detect sensors tell it which way to adjust, contrast detection does not, among other issues).

Watching the development of cameras over the last decade, I think I see that we’re past the time for silly flappy mirrors. I’m starting to feel about them a little like the way Heinlein described internal-combustion engines in The Rolling Stones:

 The prime mover for such a juggernaut might have rested in one’s lap; the rest of the mad assembly consisted of afterthoughts intended to correct the uncorrectable, to repair the original basic mistake in design—for automobiles and even the early aeroplanes were “powered” (if one may call it that) by “reciprocating engines.”

A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second. Much of the heat was intentionally thrown away into a “water jacket” or “cooling system,” then wasted into the atmosphere through a heat exchanger.

What little was left caused blocks of metal to thump foolishly back-and-forth (hence the name “reciprocating”) and thence through a linkage to cause a shaft and flywheel to spin around. The flywheel (believe it if you can) had no gyroscopic function; it was used to store kinetic energy in a futile attempt to cover up the sins of reciprocation. The shaft at long last caused wheels to turn and thereby propelled this pile of junk over the countryside.

 

Apart from the risk of simply being completely wrong, I’m wondering if it’s too early to go all-in on mirrorless designs. The main players are Olympus and Panasonic (in the Micro Four Thirds collaboration) and Fuji. Canon and Nikon have minor lines of no particular market or technological significance (though rumor has it that Nikon is coming out with a full-frame mirrorless line next year), Leica makes a few full-frame models at Leica prices, and Sony has some very interesting full-frame models (but the lens lines for them are limited and pretty expensive).

Oh, and there are some medium-format mirrorless models now, from Leica, Hasselblad, and Fuji at least; those aren’t oriented towards sports-level action, and are getting into five figures instead of mid 4 in price, so they’re not anything I should or can think about.

Mirrorless cameras are very easy to adapt to use any old-style SLR lenses (and many others), in strictly manual mode. Because they don’t have to have space for a mirror to flip up, the back of the lens mount flange is very close to the sensor; and when making an adapter that’s one of the inescapable limits (the other is the coverage of the lens being adapted). And, with electronic viewfinders and modern technology like “focus peaking” and just magnifying the image, manual focus is vastly more usable than it was with SLRs. I do still need AF for fast-moving subjects, though, especially sports, and it’s convenient some of the rest of the time. However, my current mirrorless camera wasn’t modern enough to have focus peaking, so I don’t have more than passing direct experience with it (playing with other people’s cameras).

While I lived with film for decades, I now casually expect modern levels of low-light sensitivity out of my equipment (and I am, after all, mostly competing with people who either have it, or don’t want it).  Micro Four Thirds uses a sensor half the area of a “full-frame” sensor. The Fujis and the Canon are APS-C.  The bigger sensors will always capture more photons per pixel at any given resolution (each pixel is simply physically bigger).  And while they’ll all get better at capturing, and at processing the data they capture, they’ll all be reasonably in step on those improvements. Bigger will always win.

Here are the DXOMARK stats on some of the cameras I have or am considering:

DXOMARK numbers

My old Nikon D700 has a “sports” score (which is basically high ISO quality) of 2303. The fancy new OM-D E-M1 Mark II has a score of…1312; not that much better than half as good. And the Sony A7R II, one of the very top low-light cameras,  scores 3434. In the nearly 10 years since my D700 was released, sensors and processing haven’t  improved enough for any smaller sensor to catch up with it, but sensors the same size have moved well past it. So the latest fancy Micro Four Thirds body would be a considerable step backwards in something I care about (possibly mitigated by a lens a stop faster from 200mm to 300mm, see below).

Just to confirm the DXO methodology, here are lab test shots of some of the choices from dpreview.com:

DPReview high-ISO examples

(Note that the Nikon D750 is considerably more recent than my D700; but they didn’t have anything that old in the database, not even the D3).

That’s kind of interesting, in that the Sony doesn’t look as good as its rating would suggest.  The E-M1 Mark II does look somewhat better than the E-M5. And of course the D750 beats them all, but that’s a modern full-frame DSLR.

Going solely to any mirrorless system requires buying some high-end lenses, too; at least their 70-200mm f/2.8 equivalent. And there, Micro Four Thirds wins big; the Olympus equivalent (40-150/2.8 Pro) has equivalent angle of view of an 80-300, which is enough longer to be very nice (a stop faster anywhere beyond 200mm equivalent than anything I have now), and costs “only” $1400. The only choice for the Sony (no Sigma or Tokina models available) costs $2600.

Oh, and there are some fairly significant Olympus rebates and trade-in deals for the next couple of weeks.

Decisions, decisions!

Annoying Aspects of Modernity

My primary camera came back as “beyond service life” and hence unrepairable.  Even the guy at the camera store was surprised, he had to look up when it was released (it was announced in February of 2012).

Olympus OM-D EM-5 “beyond service life”

Meanwhile, I could easily get a Leica M3 (made around the same time I as) or a Nikon F (about 5 years newer than the Leica) repaired. Of course those two are special cases, they’re both regarded as important classics. And, being old-school completely mechanical cameras, the parts they need can be manufactured pretty easily today, without any help from the original manufacturers.

This was my only video camera and my primary still camera (though the D700 still does a much better job on roller derby and in dark bars and music circles).

I’ve been playing around in my head with where to take the camera collection from here, given that both sides (this Micro Four Thirds body and the lenses for it, and my Nikon D700 and those lenses) are getting old by modern standards (the D700 is even older, having been released in July of 2008; I’ve already had one autofocus system repair). This is rather financially constrained, among other things.  (Some of the Nikon lenses I’m using I bought in 1981, and they still work fine, and still could be repaired though perhaps not by Nikon themselves.)

I think it’s time to abandon flappy mirrors; they’re a silly idea in digital cameras. However, full-frame sensors do seriously better in low light than smaller ones (no smaller sensor has yet matched the specs of my 2008 D700 full-frame sensor), and DSLRs have better auto-focus for tracking and fast action than any mirrorless (except possibly maybe the hugely expensive top-of-the-line Sony A9, which doesn’t take any of my lenses). And there aren’t many full-frame mirrorless lines; there’s the Sony, and a Leica (which makes the Sony look cheap).  But the state of the art in sensors and electronics is advancing constantly; while no smaller sensor has caught up to my D700 yet, they’re close, and no doubt will catch up soon. Of course today’s full-frame sensors are five generations (or some such) better, and still well ahead, but at some point something becomes “good enough” and it’s not worth paying hugely for small improvements for most kinds of photography. Nikon is allegedly about to release their own mirrorless full-frame system, but how well it will work with old Nikon lenses is anybodies guess. For that matter how well it will work at all is still up in the air.

With financial constraints, concentrating back into one system is nearly certainly the way to go, and for cost and flexibility the Micro Four Thirds seems to be the best choice starting from where I am.

Have to think about it; I wonder what I’ll actually do—and when?

Cleaning Epson V700 Flatbed Scanner Glass

Specifically, the inside (or bottom) of the main glass. Because, as anybody who has used a scanner critically knows, the inside of those things out-gases (from the plastic) and deposits thin layers of gunk on the bottom of the glass.

You do also have to clean the top of the glass, but that’s easy; normal glass or lens cleaning techniques (so, Windex, water and ammonia, alcohol-based lens cleaner, with suitable soft cloth or paper).

Ammonia, in your own mix or in Windex, is corrosive to electronics, so be careful what you spray around where!

It’s easy to Google up posts all over about the process in general, like here.

The bottom of the glass is no harder—once you get to it.

The basic process is:

  1. Unplug everything
  2. Remove the scanning lid and set it carefully aside
  3. Remove the four plastic plugs over the screws that hold the top on
  4. Remove the screws that hold the top on (small Phillips)
  5. Lift off the top
  6. Clean the bottom of the glass, as above

The problem is those little plugs. Well, they’re not actually that big a problem, but it’s not obvious from the outside how to do this.

If your scanner is out of warranty, it doesn’t matter too much; the failure mode is gashing up the plugs and the top of the housing, which are purely cosmetic issues. If however your scanner is still in warranty, clear evidence that you’ve been inside could void your warranty.

So, here’s one of the plugs, in place:

One of 4 plugs covering the screws that hold the top on to an Epson V700 scanner

Those scratches were made by me, with a small (jeweler’s) flat-blade screwdriver, trying to find the point to pry the plug out. Ruined the screwdriver, too, by the way, but this was one of the vestigial ones from an old set and I was rather expecting that, using such a small thing as a pry-bar.

There is, it turns out, a better way! (This is my shocked face.)

Note the wide “V” on the plastic cap. With the scanner on the desk in front of you so that the top opens away from you (I think of this as the “normal” position to use a flatbed scanner in), that “V” is pointing down (meaning the wide side is away from me).

Here’s the cap off, and what a cap looks like from the bottom:

Cap off, both sides, and screw in well

Note the top cap is well and truly messed up; that’s the first one I got out, before I knew how to do it reasonably cleanly.

Now, look at the bottom cap (also oriented so the bottom of the “V” is towards us, wide end away).  See that big gap at the top?  Yeah, turns out if you pry there it’s much easier to get the pry-bar in and much easier to get the cap out, doing almost no damage.  Not none, if you’re in warranty you should still think about that. I tried the “duct tape” thing frequently cited on the web, but it did nothing at all with mine.

So: Put your narrow pry-bar in at the wide part of the “V”, and pry there.  Comes right off!

There’s something slightly weird about the front left corner, that was the hardest bit to get off and get on. I found the top went on much better if you put the left side down first.

But my glass is all much cleaner now.

First Good Flash I Owned

Now, the old Braun flash I remember fondly is the RL-515.  This was the flash I learned to do bounce flash with (at the behest of the editor of Carleton’s Alumni Magazine, for whom I was the primary photographer at the time—Jane Kellogg maybe?).

Powerful enough to bounce the flash off the ceiling in most institutional rooms and expose Plus-X (ASA 125)  at f/5.6. Recycled in 1-2 seconds to full power.  Being able to shoot the slower Plus-X rather than the grainier  Tri-X, and being able to bounce (producing softer and more suitably located lighting) really set my pictures apart from others in the early 1970s.

Fully manual, of course; it had two power settings, and two reflector positions (normal and wide), but after that you were on your own.  To bounce, you estimated the distance the flash traveled, figured the aperture for that, then added some more exposure (generally 1-2 stops) to account for the reflectivity of the bounce surface and the diffusion of the beam. Then you made up for any miscalculations in the darkroom.

It was a monster—square flash head about 3×3 inches, an L-bracket to attach it to the base of the camera, and a separate battery pack that hung over your shoulder. Note it’s set up to go on the right side of the camera; in those days the right hand was the support hand, with the adjustments (aperture, focus, zoom if you had it) being done with the left hand.  The hand positions are the same today, but with the conveniently-located control buttons and wheels, the right hand also controls exposure and AF trigger and things.  (Not everybody does things the same way, either than or now.)

Braun RL-515 Flash
Braun RL-515 Flash

I owned two of them at various times (the first perishing in a friend’s car fire!).

What that pack contained was a weird historical relic: a 510V primary dry-cell battery.  (Eveready 496, NEDA Listing 741)! Even in the mid 1970s they were expensive, I remember paying $35 (which was about what four 100-foot rolls of Plus-X cost, about 75 rolls of film). But that was the only flash I ever had with that speed of recycling, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a more powerful one either.

Eveready 479 510V dry-cell battery
Eveready 479 510V dry-cell battery

I wouldn’t wonder if the 510V rechargeable packs for various flashes derived from this and thus were electrically compatible with it. I don’t think there’s much chance of finding any of the actual dry-cell batteries at this late date!  (Huh; I do find a place claiming to have them for sale—for $200; electronicplus.com)

My Sunpak 555 with Quantum Battery 2 was a better flash than this, because of the ability to work with OTF flash exposure control in modern cameras (I used it with Olympus OM-4Ts and many different Nikons). None of the others I owned even came close, especially the Honeywall Auto-Strobonar 892s.

These Have Gotten Cheaper

Clipboard01

I got mine (long gone) in 1973 for $250, with a 50mm Summicron collapsible lens.  It was quite old then (I seem to recall that I once looked up my serial number and determined my M3 was made in 1954; same vintage as me).

But inflation since then has been a lot; a random online calculator says my $250 is now worth $1391 (and looking deeper into the ebay search, that bottom guy is an optimist).