It is remarkable how fast photography has shifted from film to digital imaging. If you doubt the shift is all but complete, check the impact on Kodak. Shutdown of US film operations has been accelerated several times, many thousands of employees have been cut, and Kodak stock has taken a beating as the company struggled to find secure footing in a new digital imaging world. All of this was happening while Kodak invested millions in developing digital imaging solutions in a market that was shifting like quicksand.

Digital, of course, is the domain of the computer, and the transition of artistic photographers to digital has been anything but smooth. The artistic types distrust turning their vision into cheap Adobe Photoshop tricks, and the tech-savvy are so enamored of technology and editing that they often don't have a clue about what makes a good photograph and what lens to use in a given situation. As AnandTech prepares to re-launch Digital Photography reviews, it is important that our readers understand at least the basics of digital photography. That is the purpose of this guide.

There are plenty of Digital Camera Review sites out on the web, so you may ask why AnandTech is re-launching a Digital Photography section? If you are a photographer or serious photo hobbyist you have many excellent review sites already available. They do a great job of providing the kind of information the serious photo hobbyist is looking for. However, our readers who visit those sites are often overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information and the background required to make that information accessible. For a computer enthusiast who wants to learn about digital cameras to make a buying decision, many current sites are a difficult place to find answers. Some sites make the assumption that the reader knows a lot more about photography than our average reader, which often leads to much of the review being gibberish to a non-photographer. Other sites dwell on tests of things like "start-up times" that were important in early digital, but have become all but meaningless in today's digital SLR market unless you are a professional sports photographer. Still other sites, which are very well-grounded in the traditional photography side show an obvious lack of knowledge about computers and computer tools that make digital photography so flexible today.

Some of our readers may not like AT delving into Digital Camera Reviews, and to them we say you just can't ignore digital photography any more. Today's digital imaging is nothing more than an optic stuck on a computer, and unfortunately there is very little left of the mechanical gems that once ruled the world of photography. It is our sincere belief that we can do digital camera reviews with a unique perspective for our readers and computer enthusiasts everywhere, but please help us as we try to reinvent this wheel.

There are some things about photography that have not changed in the move to digital, however. In the end taking a digital photo is still basically dependent on the same set of "rules" as taking a film image, as the only real difference in digital and film is what happens after the image is captured. This is particularly obvious in looking at Digital SLR cameras, which are currently the fastest growing segment of the Digital Photography market. You will find all the traditional photography names here - Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus, Minolta - and this is where the "real" photographers work. Names like Casio, HP, Sony, Fuji, Samsung and Kodak don't exist in SLR space - except as the odd offering based on the lenses of one of the "real" Photography companies.

The reasons for this are really quite clear. Digital and computer imaging have concentrated on the sensor and ever increasing megapixel counts, while the people who take photographs for a living have continued to concentrate on the quality of the lenses they work with and the images that they sell. In both film and digital, all other things being equal, the best quality lens wins. Of course the best quality lenses and the widest variety of lenses come from the traditional photo companies like Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax and Olympus. These companies have taken years to develop their extensive line of lenses, and these lenses are the ones in the hands of photographers. Today, it takes a lot of money and effort to develop a new lens line. As a result you have amalgams like Samsung using the Pentax lens line on their SLR, a Fuji Pro camera using Nikon lenses, and past Kodak Pro Digitals designed for both Canon and Nikon lens mounts - two models for each Pro camera.


Recently Sony introduced their first SLR, and one of our first digital camera reviews at AT will be the new Sony Alpha or A100. So did Sony break the rules? Sony is one of the world's largest manufacturers of digital sensors - the chip that captures an image in digital format. In fact you will see Sony sensors in almost every brand of "serious" camera except Canon and Olympus. Sony makes sensors for Nikon, Pentax and Minolta. Canon is another huge sensor manufacturer and makes their own sensors for their cameras, while Kodak and Panasonic both make four-thirds sensors used by Olympus in their various models.

Sony has some very feature-rich and capable fixed lens cameras in their lineup, and their own form factor for memory, but Sony has coveted a big piece of the "serious" photography or SLR market. Sony apparently did not want to brand themselves a second tier player in the SLR market by offering an SLR for other brand lenses. Instead they entered into a joint development agreement with Konica-Minolta last year. Then, early this year, Sony bought the Konica-Minolta camera business and announced they would continue development of the 20-year old Minolta auto-focus lens system to work with their own new Digital SLR cameras.

The Sony Alpha or A100 is the first camera that marries Sony technology with the Minolta system. It is a new Digital SLR brand with a new Sony 10.2 megapixel sensor and an existing lens base of some 20 million Minolta Auto-Focus lenses. By purchasing the Konica Minolta camera business and assuming warranty responsibilities, Sony instantly became a major player with a full lens line. When you consider that only Sony and Canon make their own sensors for their digital SLR cameras you can clearly see what Sony can leverage in the DSLR market, and why they were willing to buy an existing lens line. Sony didn't break the rules, they just bought instant credibility in a market that is difficult to crack.

If you want to learn about digital photography you should find this guide a good place to start. If you are in the market for a new Digital SLR then this is a good place to gain the background to intelligently compare these cameras. The Digital SLR market is hot and we will be covering the six new 10 megapixel cameras that sell for less than $1000 in detail in the coming months: the Sony A100, Nikon D80, Canon Rebel XTi, Olympus E-400 (Europe/Asia only), Pentax K10D, and Samsung GX-10.

Digital Directions
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  • silver - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    No Adaptall for digital cameras ? Reply
  • tsapiano - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    Well, most DSLRs use the same lens mount as their film-based predecessors so you can use things like Adaptall on the new cameras as well if you really want. The problem with that is that this technique was pretty much abandoned a while ago, so to do this you'd be stuck using old aftermarket lenses. While it was relatively easy to make a universally adaptable lens when everyone was using simple mechanical couplings - the electronic communication used in modern lenses has made that much more complicated. As such, most modern aftermarket lenses are now generally built and sold specifically for the mount you are using.

    With that said, there are simple adapters that you can buy to mount Nikon, Leica, Contax, Olympus OM and Pentax lenses on Canon EF bodies. As the Canon mount has a smaller register (ie the mount is closer to the film plane) and wider opening than all of those mounts, it makes it possible to fit an adapter in there. The catch-22, however, is that these are very simple adapters and don't do much other than mechanically attach the lens to the camera - you loose aides like autofocus, aperture must be set on the lens (ie A or M exposure modes only), you're forced to revert to stop down metering, etc. As such, while this may be useful to use a special purpose lens or two it's not really what you want to do for your everyday photography ;)
    Reply
  • Resh - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    Nope. Reply
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    No, Canon lenses fit Canon only, and same with Nikon. Each brand will only fit their own lenses and independent lenses made for that clens mount. Samsung licensed their lenses from Pentax and they will fit Samsung and Pentax. Sony bought Minolta so Sony and Minolta lenses both fit. Reply
  • nigham - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    I'm really happy that AT is getting to digital SLR camera reviews. This article was slightly disappointing. As has been pointed out, anyone who doesn't know his or her f-stops and shutter speeds should certainly not be spending money on a Digital SLR just yet. My experience with my prosumer Canon S2IS says that it takes a while to _really_ appreciate these settings and they're not simply learned theoretically. And I don't particularly care for history, but maybe thats just me.

    That said, it's OK since I've only seen one real good DSLR introduction for beginners (http://www.firingsquad.com/hardware/panasonic_lumi...">here), and what matters most are the reviews, which I'm hoping will measure up to the usual AT standard. Here's what I'd like:

    - Feature description and (in prose) comparisons to comparable and current cameras. What's really improved, and what's just marketing? etc.
    - How good the documentation is. This is something woefully ignored by many camera review sites.
    - Reference testing with a high-quality lens; since I would expect to be buying lenses eventually if I get a DSLR
    - A section (maybe short) evaluating the quality of the in-kit lenses
    - Battery tests (these are important! unlike that startup times in which case I totally agree with you). Also options for backup batteries (how expensive, availability)
    - A (necessarily subjective) description of the "feel" of the camera output in various real-world scenarios like landscape, low-light, fast-motion etc.
    - A human-readable description of how easy/difficult the UI is. I do not want a list of menu options five levels deep and 20 EVF screenshots, I need you to take a call and let me know what the bottom line is. How hard is it to change the basic stuff (F-stop, ISO, WB?); are there any customizations available; are there any quirks like controls that inadvertently get messed around with; does it have a on-screen histogram?
    - How good the AUTO mode is, and when it fails. Personally, I believe that the primary job of a photographer is to see the photo and compose it. I'd like to know when I can afford to go auto and spend more time composing my shot, and when I can't do that.
    - A set of sample photos in real-world situations

    I think it would be nice to remember that even for hard-core computer enthusiasts, photography remains an art and is not easily described; and is nearly impossible to describe with numbers alone.

    Lastly, I'd really appreciate an article on RAW workflow - if possible one that includes a discussion of the ways Linux handles DSLRs. That is something that changes quite a bit for users transitioning to DLSRs.
    Reply
  • Resh - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    quote:

    - How good the AUTO mode is, and when it fails. Personally, I believe that the primary job of a photographer is to see the photo and compose it. I'd like to know when I can afford to go auto and spend more time composing my shot, and when I can't do that.


    Sorry, just can't agree with that. How can the inter-related tasks of exposure, choosing focus point, and depth of field be separated from composition?
    Reply
  • mostlyprudent - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    One thing I forgot in my earlier post (and forgive me if it has already been mentioned), I would like to see more on lenses. I think AT should test both the Kit lense and a high quality reference lense. I wouldlike to know both how good the camera can be with a great lense and how good of a value the kit lense offers.

    Thanks.
    Reply
  • Resh - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    I thought it was a good primer for beginners and was full of useful history, but couldn't shake the feeling that AT was trying to crowd into an already crowded room.

    While I fully agree with those who have pointed-out that a diversity of reviews is a good thing, I think that diversity already exists with sites like Steve's Digicams, DPReview, etc. In addition to those we have more art, in-the-field sites like Luminous Landscape that focus on how a product performs in the field.

    Some have argued that AT should do reviews to the level of detail/bench-marking that is employed for motherboard and video cards. Here, I have a harder time as I don't see an SLR body as being comparable to those components.

    AT reviews those parts in the context of choosing one to fit into a larger computer system. Alternatively, an entire system (e.g., Alienware) is tested against a home-built system with similar specs or at similar cost. This model, however, doesn't appear relevant to the SLR market as one cannot individually buy the processor, sensor, body, etc. that is the best and construct their own camera. Rather, a first time buyer chooses an entry point into a given manufacturer's "system" based on the body's attributes; lens cost, availability, and quality; and available accessories. For someone upgrading their SLR, the choices are even less driven the details that AT would likely be assessing. Rather, they'd be considering the costs of switching systems (e.g., from Canon to Nikon), or simply considering the value of upgrading to the latest and greatest, a question that existing sites can answer just fine.

    All that to say that there are areas where current sites fail and where AT's expertise might be better leveraged. The main example, for me, is in the area of displays and printers. With regard to the former, quality CRTs are gone and LCDs present a purchaser with huge variability in cost, performance, and quality. AT could look at the display market from the photographer's point of view (appropriate brightness coupled with stable contrast, wide-colour gamut, ease of calibration, wide viewing angles, etc). This could be supplemented with discussion of colour calibration products. Similarly for printers, there is little to be found on-line that offers critical comparison of competing printers on different papers. Both of these areas would fit well within AT's current review framework.

    Lastly, AT, while not a software site, could elevate the standards of software reviews by taking a hard look at the effects of different RAW converters, enlargement software, sharpening tools, and noise reduction software. I have not seen anyone do this in an objective, scientific manner.

    AT is a fantastic site and while I applaud your willingness to branch-out, I am cautious about your getting too far from your core audience and your core strengths.

    N
    Reply
  • s12033722 - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    It would be good to delve into the nature of how image sensors work and the differences between types of sensors. I think Anandtech would be an excellent place to discuss these aspects of the cameras.

    Image sensors basically work by photons interacting with light-sensitive portions of the sensor to create electrical charge. The efficiency of the sensor at converting photons into electrons is reffered to as quantum efficiency, and has a serious impact on how well a camera will perform under different imaging conditions. After the charge is collected, in the case of a CCD sensor, the charge is read out of the sensor, passed through a processing chain, and then digitized. It is important to note that this is an ANALOG process until the point of digitization. In the case of a CMOS sensor, the digitization may occur at each pixel on the sensor, at the end of each row or column of pixels on the sensor, or off sensor like the CCD. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, generally trading off noise performance for pixel size.

    Image sensors are characterized by a number of factors. Noise, dynamic range, pixel size, and so forth tend to be interrelated. The comment in the article about dynamic range was somewhat simplistic. Dynamic range is primarily governed by the charge capacity of the pixel. A sensor will be characterized by a quantum efficiency as noted above, which means that as more photons strike the sensor, a greater charge will be built up. If a very bright spot exists on the image, that spot will usually fully charge the pixels under that spot, limiting the output at that level. For instance, let's say a pixel has a full-well charge capacity of 30,000 electrons, and that there is no noise. The dimmest pixel possible on the image would be 1 electron (well, 0, but let's say 1) and the brightest would be 30,000, for a dynamic range of 30,000 to 1. Now, in reality there are noise sources in a sensor. Many of them. That will typically mean that the dimmest pixel will have a charge on it, which reduces the dynamic range. Perhaps there are 500 electrons of noise. Now the sensor has a dynamic range of 30,000 to 500 or 60 to 1. Far less. The ways to increase dynamic range are to decrease noise or to increase charge capacity. Unfortunately, charge capacity is directly tied to the physical size of the pixel, so as resolutions get higher, pixel size gets smaller, and dynamic range suffers. It is entirely possible to build sensors with dynamic ranges that meet or exceed those of film, but generally not within the size constraints imposed by sensor size and the perception of resolution as king by most consumers. When was the last time you saw the dynamic range or noise performance advertised on a camera? Even though these are arguably far more important than resolution to most SLR purchasers, these details are glossed over.

    I would like to see a basic overview of the guts of a digital camera given. Sensors, data conversion, data processing, autofocus mechanisms, etc. Anandtech seems like a good site to do it. Contact me if you need help or technical details.
    Reply
  • Curt - Monday, September 25, 2006 - link

    Could you include in your reviews astronomy photos? As an amateur astronomer, I'd be interested in comparing the very low light sensitivy and contrast ratios of the CCD's.
    Thanks in advance
    Reply

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