PDN PhotoPlus 2011 – Show Roundup
The Big Toy Store on West 34th
By Nick Devlin
PDN PhotoPlus is the annual chance for photographers and enthusiasts in and around New York to sample what's new amd exciting (or not so new and exciting) in the world of photography. It's a far cry from Photokina, but but good fun nonetheless. I had the opportunity to explore this year's show in some detail, and herewith is my dispatch from the front.
Let's start with Canon, because it's literally where the show starts when you walk in. In terms of raw real estate, Canon was king. Big Red didn’t so much have a booth as a small country. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the inclement weather kept many of the company’s professional sales staff from attending. Maybe it was my luck of the draw, but it kind of seemed like the company had spent all their money on the rent, and then resorted to tossing Canon t-shirts on some dudes it found loitering outside a taxi repair shop on West 35th street in order to staff its sprawling space. On each of four forays into Canonland, the reps I encountered either lacked knowledge about the products beyond what one might find on the front page of Canon’s website, or evidenced active disinterest in engaging in conversations with potential customers.
As a saving grace, Canon did have a steady stream of interesting and accomplished photographers lecturing on their in-house stage, including Steve Johnson for the landscape crowd.
The big news at the Canon booth was, of course, the freshly-announed EOS 1Dx. This is a beast best described as the iPhone 4s of the digital SLR world. Everyone (or at least everyone on this site) wanted the iPhone5, or in this case a 1Ds Mk IV, but got an evoluntionary step forward instead. The 1Dx represents the merger of Canon’s “1D” line of photojournalism-oriented cameras with Canon's full-frame lineup. While its resolution might lead the cynical to observe that it’s 2004 all over again (the last time we all dropped $7K on a roughly 18mp Canon full-frame DSLR), the leitmotif of this machine is speed. In fact, the analogy to the iPhone 4s is particular apt in this regard. While this camera doesn’t do much we haven’t seen before, it just does a LOT of it, really, really fast.
The aged amongst us will remember the legendary Canon F1hs, which shot 9 fps and was owned as a vanity item by a few superstar photographers. The 1Dx brings such stratospheric frame-rates to the masses, blazing through 12fps in RAW and 14fps in JPEG mode. The AF system has also been beefed-up in quantity and quality. The entire central segment of the frame is blanketed with 61 focus points. This veritable avalanche of image and focusing data is handled by a phalanx of dedicated processors, two for imaging, and one stand-alone for exposure.
This camera may be of significant interest to wildlife photographers, assuming their subjects aren’t averse to coming under what sounds like machine-gun fire. Anyone familiar with the ethos of the EOS1 machines will be right at home. The 1Dx is robust and features more control inputs than you will ever need, but at core looks to be a real thoroughbred in its niche of the market.
In keeping with the theme of numeric excess, the 1Dx features ‘native’ ISO all the way up to 51,200, and “expanded sensitivity” to an astronomical ISO 204,800. Whether this represents a real expansion of the sensitivity of Canon’s CMOS sensors, or is principally post-processing slight-of-hand, remains for the detailed testing to follow the camera’s release. Suffice it to say that if the camera can indeed achieve dead-clean and detailed files at ISOs in the 640-1600 range, it may have appeal for a lot outdoor photographers.
The other news at Canon is the PRO1 printer, which appears to achieve a remarkable absence of gloss-differential in black and white printing – one of the holy grails of the inkjet world. Canon has clearly put a lot of thought into this printer, and seems determined to continue competing in what is a tough field. Unfortunately, the sample prints on show were uninspiring both as photographs and, more significantly, as prints, due to poor paper choices. The printer is also huge and heavy, which will negatively impact its appeal. That said, Canon continues to be a bit of a dark-horse in the printer race, quietly coming up with some very competent products.
If it was shades of 2004 at Canon's booth, over at Nikon's booth it was still 2008, at least at the DSLR counter. The fact that people would still wait in line to play with a D3 is kind of cute. Chastened by the their recent brushes with the wrath of god, Nikon aimed to offend nobody at this show, and largely succeed. Their main attraction was a gaggle of models posing awkwardly in front of a row of Nikon 1 cameras with an assortment of lenses. The 1 appears to be a well-executed machine. It is, however, undeniably a video camera which will condescend to produce still images when asked to. No doubt many a creative soul will produce unique imagery with its 60fps capability, but its relevance to landscape work is very limited. Of course, it is available in any shade of fuchsia you might require.
A lot of people will like the Nikon 1. Me, I'm waiting for that D4/800......
So if Nikon and Canon were a bit lacklustre, who rocked it?
Fuji is a company that, perhaps not surprisingly, seriously lost its way after the demise of film and its subsequent divorce from Nikon as a supplier of camera bodies. Now, however, they are back with a vengeance. For my money, Fuji’s X10 was by far the sexiest metal at the show. The X10 represents the complete modernization of the Leica gestalt, which Fuji understands at least as well as Leica does. This camera is solid metal and feels fabulous in the hand. It has a minimalist analog interface, with a manual zoom and optical viewfinder. With a 28-120mm f/2-2.8 lens, this could be the perfect light travel camera. It is quick, quiet and very responsive. The only question is how the 2/3” chip will hold up in terms of image quality. A certain lucky-bastard who is loosely affiliated with this site has had a sample for several days, and his full report should be online soon.
While the sub-APC sized chip in the X10 obviously disqualifies it as a serious landscape camera, this may be the ultimate travel tool for those who don't print bigger than 8x10 very often (ie: everybody). Some years ago, I caused a bit of a stir by concluding that the Canon G9 was in some ways a more attractive travel camera than the Leica M8. The shortcomings I cited for the G9 were the slow response times, slower lens, small sensor, and lack of manual zoom and a real viewfinder. The X10 fixes every one of these, and does it in style. Fuji is on a roll – stay tuned.
Speaking of companies on a roll, Leica continues its winning ways, even though their major announcements will likely wait for Photokina 2012. Decked out in their snazzy red-ties on black suits, the friendly Leica staff welcomed all comers to their Temple of the Unattainable. And I’m not talking about price. Many Leica lenses are actually unattainable in the ‘we can’t keep up with orders’ kind of way; more proof that optical perfection coupled with mechanical bliss remains an unbeatable combination. The only new thing Leica had on display was the 30mm lens for the S2 system. Yet another mammoth piece of glass, the 30mm promises to bring the S system’s unmatched optical quality to a 24mm equivalent. This is a dream lens for many landscape and architectural shooters. If the S2’s ‘relatively low’ pixel count is holding the system back, it sure isn’t showing.
Leica’s weakness at the moment would appear to be in the compact camera range. Frankly, Fuji is out-Leicaing Leica big time right now. In the grand scheme however, that is unlikely to matter, since the M and S lines continue their unlikely success in the face of an industry ever-more melding into the consumer electronics world. Metal-Gear-Solid photography lives.
Riding high on Leica's coat tails in the 'metal-gear solid' realm is Zeiss. The reborn company proudly showed its growing line of beautifully made, old-school, fixed focal-length, fast aperture, heavy-helical lenses. With the next generation of max-megapixel DSLRs only a receding floodline away, Zeiss is well positioned to take advantage of all the people for whom good-enough will no longer be good enough. Their one new offering, the 25mm f2, was as attractive as the rest of their line up. In the cabinet next door, Zeiss also had its drool-worthy line of Cine lens on display. These are untouchable for mere mortals like myself, but are an intergral part of the real-lens renaissance. Long live the real lens!
Just across the isle, but at the far end of the brass-to-silicon continuum, Sony had their new A77 and Nex7 cameras on display, but seemed to be attracting curiously less attention than the comparatively uninspiring Canon and Nikon showings. You don’t have to hold a Nex7 in hand for long to know that this is a game changer in the compact range. Sony is doing a lot right. One has to wonder when its as-of-yet not adoring public will catch up. Not to sell Sony short on their more traditional products, their line of Zeiss lenses and the big Minolta-derived telephoto lenses are the real deal. Now Sony just has to drop the other shoe, in the form of their new top-end DSLR, and maybe people will start to notice that this technology giant has taken up permanent residence in the house of photography and shows no signs of leaving any time soon.
This one hurt. Pentax did not have a booth. They had a table. Well, ok, two of them, with a lot of Pentax Qs lying around to try out and a few copies of a book of prints from the Q. This, along with a couple of K5s and one lonely 645D with one lonely lens was it. From a camera company with the most afforadable and user-friendly medium format system on the market, this was tragic. There should have been a wall of mind-blowing 30x40 prints from the 645D. Pentax has a lot of interesting and excellent products. They ought to be a contender in many segments of the market. But being a contender entails looking and acting like a contender. In this respect, trade shows act as an illuminating microcosm of the corporate cultures of companies on display. Some are big and cocky and kind of empty, others are focussed and hungry, others are just wandering the wilderness like sheep lost in a madly mixed metaphor. Substantively, Pentax will do quite well with the Q simply because it is so Qute. Lots of fun-seekers will buy the camera for sheer novelty value, and find it to be good, clean family fun. At a performance level, however, Fuji has likely bested Pentax with the X10.
Printers and Papers
After the introduction of several outstanding baryta-based papers in the recent past, the printing front has been relatively quiet. The only interesting new product in this realm was HP’s dedicated large format photo negative printing process. This allows the creation of any size of negative to contact-print on either traditional silver-halide papers or via a platinum/palladium process. Essentially a modernized version of the process Dan Burkholder pioneered almost a decade ago, HP’s product consists of a series of presets for printing negative on one of the inkjet compatible clear film products using the Z3200 printer. To HP’s credit, they support not only their own film, but those from Pictorico and Bergger as well.
Unfortunately, the sample prints they showed were both uninteresting and, in one case, not terribly crisply focused. This was astonishing considering that Elliott Erwitt is proudly presented as the featured user of the system in HP's print and online material. Still, this initiative by HP makes the digital negative process a mature technology accessible to those who might otherwise not have been willing to go through the lengths of experimentation and adjustment of curves necessary to get good results.
Silver prints have a clearly different feel and flavour than inkjet, and a convenient method for turning digital files into printing-ready negatives will be attractive to a small but significant niche of fine art photographers. If I had a Z3200, I would be all over this.
The only other phenomenon of note amongst the printer and paper crowd was the surprising gap in print quality at their displays. Once again, EPSON wiped the floor with its rivals in both the quality of the sample photographs and the quality of the printing. I have never understood why a paper or printer company would use anything other than near-perfect works of art as samples at a large public event, but they do. The quality of the work shown at EPSON’s booth was an order of magnitude better than anywhere else. The printing, in particular, was flawless, and stood as a reminder of both what is possible with modern media, and the difference true skill and craftsmanship make.
Note: since writing this, I saw that Epson is now advertising here on LL, and learned that some guy named Schewe, also associated to this site, did a lot of the printing. I nevertheless decided to keep the comment in, because the observation was that striking to me at the show. In fact, I dragged a couple of friends past various of the printer/paper booths to see if they agreed. They did. The point is not that Epson papers or printers are better, but rather that (i) the medium is capable of truly phenomenal results and (ii) that, as easy as it is to make ok prints, there is a real, major difference between good and great. Hitting CTRL + P is but the last step in the artistry of the print. One of the best reasons to go to a show like this is to see work that inspires. This time around, that work was on display at the Epson booth. Well done.
If there's any real take-away from Photoplus 2011 from a landscape/nature shooter's perspective, it is that the still/video and photography/electronics convergence continues to steam forward, but that the best aspects of classic analog technology have found more than a foothold and are in fact flourishing. Also, thanks to Sony and Fuji in particular, truly compact and travel-friendly cameras, capable of the best of what digital image-capture has to offer, have finally arrived.