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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  • squiddy - Thursday, February 15, 2007 - link

    I'm fairly versed in film and digital SLRs and have been shooting since the mid-80s. Nikon afficionado here but I did have a few Canon EOS film bodies back in the day. Currently use a D70s and soon hopefully a D200 in my bag.

    Anyway, as to sugestions for future reviews, the technical aspect tests are all well and good since numbers are always easy to quantify. The MP count, max resolution, test charts and etc do help people choose cameras after all. What I'd like to see more of are subjective reviews. How user-friendly is the camera? Are the menu's easy to navigate and the features easy to get to? How are the ergonomics and will my hand require a chiropractor after a long day of shooting? Is the camera balanced even when using a medium telephoto lens? How about accessories (flash kits, filters, battery grips, flash brackets, etc), are they useful for this camera or just gravy?

    What made me write these additional questions is that I experienced it when I borrowed a Canon 350d for a friend's wedding. This was before my Nikon D70s and I absolutely loved/hated it. The pictures were great but required heavy menu navigation for white balance and iso settings. The camera was lighter than my old film Nikon so it wasn't tiring to carry all the time but the grip was awful. My pinky was sticking out under the body and a;; the weight was focused on the upper/rear quarter of my right palm. I'll tell you now, it hurts to use it for a long time. Especially with a 430ex flash. I then tried a friend's D50 and a D70 after that and it solidified my Nikon preference. Great ergonomics and the two dials give you much greater flexibility on the fly.

    These reviews are probably aspects that the average consumer won't consider before purchasing and just focus on numbers but it greatly affects the usability of the camera in the long run.

    Thanks guys and keep up the great work!
    Reply
  • appu - Sunday, October 08, 2006 - link

    I don't know if these have already been covered in the comments earlier. There are quite a few and I didn't read them all.

    1.) When talking about vibration reduction, you need to make sure you tell your readers that VR/IS *cannot* eliminate subject motion blur. It can only eliminate (to a degree) blur caused by handshake. I'm surprised you missed such an important point considering that you felt most AT readers are newbies at photography. It's all dandy to believe that VR gets you sharp images all the time. No, it doesn't. There are caveats and you might have mentioned them.

    2.) The real benefit of SLR cameras is - more than anything else - the fact that the photographer sees what the lens sees. That's a major, major advantage of a SLR over point-and-shoots and rangefinders which exhibit parallax error by the nature of their design, especially if the subject is close to the lens/camera. Given this, you might have also mentioned that sensor-based stabilization techniques are a bit of a misfit (atleast that's what I tend to think) because having a stabilized sensor still *will not* give you a stabilized image in the viewfinder. However, lenses which have VR in-built *will* give you a stabilized image in your viewfinder - again going back to the "what you see is what you get" thing. Having stabilized sensors is good for the customers as they don't pay VR royalty on every lens they buy, but I don't see the point in seeing a shaky image in the viewfinder and somehow expecting something sharp (to what degree I may not know) in the final image. Maybe 99.9999% here (or anywhere) wouldn't agree with me on this point but I think it's worth a note.

    3.) Not all kit lenses are dogs. The 18-70 DX I have for my Nikon D70 is a wonderfully sharp, contrasty lens (of course in available light situations) and after almost 2 years of shooting DSLRs I can safely admit that I've not "outgrown" this lens. It still manages to surprise me every once in a while and I don't see the need for an exotic f/2.8 zoom in this range as yet. Point I'm trying to make is - don't berate kit lenses. They are there for a reason, and as with any lens, there are certain advantages and certain disadvantages. As a photographer, it's important to understand what every bit of your equipment is good at and then maximize the technical potential of your images because of this understanding. Infact, building up on this point...

    4.) I'll go so far as to say that, even with fixed focal length (prime) lenses, the so-called "sweet spot" in terms of image sharpness and contrast is usually achieved when the lens is stopped down by 1.5 to 2 stops from its maximum aperture. If you are always going to think in terms of how zoom lenses are "bad quality" compared to primes, I'd encourage you to start shooting 2 stops down on your primes (and thus lose all the speed advantage these primes offer). I think you get what I'm trying to say. Let's not get too hung up on trivialities like this because, and I repeat because, modern zooms, even the consumer zooms produce wonderful images in the hands of capable photographers. And then you have pro-grade zooms like the 70-200 f/2.8 VR from Nikon and Canon's 17-40 f/4L etc. Yes, they are costly, but so is a 300 f/2.8 VR Nikkor or a pro-grade ~100mm macro. The price differential is evident only when you start looking at wide-to-medium-tele or super-wide-to-normal fast zooms (28-70 f/2.8, 17-55 f/2.8) and even then the output from these lenses is well worth their cost and the walk-around convenience they present to photographers who prefer this range of focal lengths. So, not all zooms are "bad". Things have improved, just as they continuously do in the computer hardware business. Let's not get stuck in old notions based on old equipment manufactured using old processes.

    Keep up the nice work!
    Reply
  • appu - Sunday, October 08, 2006 - link

    Ok, one last point -

    5.) In your second last page, you talk about "lens confusion" and how you'd like the industry to move to a standard naming of lenses. I don't understand what can be more standard than the focal length itself - a very physical property of a lens. A 35mm lens has a focal length of 35mm. Period. It doesn't depend on what format camera it's bolted on to. A 35mm lens is 35mm whether it's used on a 4x5 view camera or a 645 medium camera or a 35mm film camera or a digital equipped with an APS-C or.... you get the picture. In itself, the naming of the lens by its focal length (range, with zooms) is *not* confusing. What's confusing is what people make it out to be - quoting effective focal lengths for formats all and sundry, where as in reality, the measure everyone needs to be worried about is field-of-view. A 35mm lens will have different fields-of-view when used with different camera formats.

    We don't need a standard for identifying lenses. We already have one - focal length (a physical property that doesn't change) and field-of-view (a very measurable metric). If anything, it's the "effective focal length" paradigm has to be done away with, IMHO.
    Reply
  • appu - Sunday, October 08, 2006 - link

    In the last line of the third from last paragraph - Nikon doesn't make a 11-18mm as far as I know. They do have a 12-24 f/4 DX and Sigma also has a 12-24 (I think a non-constant aperture) which can be used on full-frame cameras too, unlike the Nikon 12-24 DX. The 11-18mm is made by one (or both) of Tamron and Tokina I think. Reply
  • directed - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    When reviewing DSLRs, I want to know how quickly they can autofocus in different lighting conditions. I want to know how good the autoexposure is in different situations. I want to know how the different flashes perform in different settings (not just the built in ones, but the ones you can buy for them). I want to know how accurate the color reproduction and contrast is. I want to know how good the jpg compression is (lets face it, few people will be using RAW). I want to know how long the batteries will last in different situations. I would also like there to be a comparison with other models in a similar price range as well as a comparison with the cheaper and more expensive models of the same manufacturer.

    Boy, looking at my post I sound demanding. LOL, I'm sure Anandtech is up to the challenge.
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, November 01, 2006 - link

    I dont know, I dont use AF for demanding lighting situations, I use the infinite Focus setting, and set the rest manually. That, and I think all 'prosumer' DSLRs have a fairly 'shitty' on cam flash, and alot of us would probably be more concerned with the hotshoe 'adapter'

    However, I will agree with battery life as an important factor, but to be honest I'm personally more concerned with how fast the camera is (FPS), and the media type used.

    I see alot of stuff on dpreview.com like 'default <insert something relivent> setting is BAD' etc, but most of the these cameras can be manually adjusted away from default settings, so, IMHO, it's a moot point, and is pointless to really mention, learn how to use your camera ;)

    You're not demanding, you just know what you want :)
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    Forget what all the nay sayers are saying guys, write you articles. I've been interrested in the Sony A100 for several months now, since the preview on dpreview.com. I also think you're right concerning the *mass* of information that dpreview gives off for thier camera reviews, most of it is un nessisary for all but the professionals, most of us just want to know things like, how many FPS does the camera achieve, how does it handle low light situations, how clean are the photos, etc.

    Carry on :)
    Reply
  • silver - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    Another good point. AT has always been about presenting good, practical information on the products that we use and in this context has always done a great job.

    The A100 certainly has my intrest as well but do note that most pro's do not need bells and whistles in their equipment. In fact most don't even want them available as it adds to both cost and complexity with almost no practical return in value.
    Reply
  • Lord Midas - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    Very good article Wesley. Thanks.

    Still a lot of this is still baffling at the moment but that should change when I get my Canon Rebel XTi 400D for Christmas.

    What I would like to see in the reviews would also include the quality of the bundled lens (the Canon comes with the 18-55mm lens). As well as with a quality lens.

    Will you also include reviews of lens:
    For example you do the "Mid Range GPU Roundup - Summer 2006"
    So you could do this with Normal, telephoto, etc lens.
    So instead of reviewing one lens you can do a group test.

    And I also think that a few standard photos for all the reviews would be good (indoor, outdoor, macro, etc) and a few random ones the the reviewer would think we would like.

    Keep up the good work. Thanks.
    Reply
  • mesonw - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    Just wanted to add my 2p-worth. I feel I fit fairly well into the target audience you're aiming at. I'm very lacking when it comes to the technical details of cameras, digital or otherwise, yet I have a great desire to take good and interesting pictures.

    It's good for people to offer tips and ideas for your upcoming articles, but I don't see the point of the very knowledgeable and camera-savvy crowd out there making harsh criticisms simply because you're targetting people with less knowledge than them. Like they say, there are other sites to get in-depth information if they want it, so why berate AT for catering for others?

    I for one look forward to your articles on the subject, because I know they will be well written, provide useful information and insights, and very likely make me a better amateur photographer.

    Good work AT.
    Reply

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