Peering Into The Future
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Casio's Time Machine
I call the Casio EX-F1 a time machine for two reasons. The first is that it provides us with a peek into the future of both still photography and video. The second is that it offers many exciting different ways of recording still and moving images, some of which almost seem as if they were designed by H.G. Wells.
The Casio EX-F1 is, I believe, the harbinger of the still and video cameras of tomorrow, and tomorrow is a lot closer than many people think. The old joke has it that today is tomorrow's yesterday, and if you can get your head around that you're ready to learn more about the EX-F1.
But be forwarded – though the EX-F1 offers a lot, as we'll see it also fails to deliver in several key areas.
Announced in January, 2008, the EX-F1 began shipping worldwide at the end of March. It didn't make as big an initial splash as some other new digital cameras, but folks in the know were paying attention. For example, David Pogue of the New York Times had a brief review of the camera and also posted a video about it on You Tube.
On the other hand it appears as if Casio is trying to limit distribution to retailers rather than online sellers, though the reason for this strategy is unclear. Maybe they want to limit sales to stores that can provide hands-on demonstration, though as we'll see, given the complexity of the camera it's unlikely that many retail camera sales people will become proficient enough and will take the time needed to properly demonstrate this camera. Or, maybe Casio simply doesn't want to sell too many of them.
I first wrote about the inevitable convergence of still photography and video In early April, in a piece titled Seeing RED, about the revolutionary RED One cine camera. The main thrust of the piece was that this camera, among the first to shoot video as raw, and with a 35mm motion picture sized imager (called 4K because its longest dimension is 4000 pixels), was changing the movie industry the way that digital did the stills segment some eight years ago.
In that article I mentioned the Casio EX-F1 as well because, among other features, it is a hybrid camera that shoots raw stills as well as high definition video. I now have had the Casio in hand for several weeks – enough time to begin to understand its implications as well as to have done some shooting with it; enough to also draw some preliminary conclusions.
But, before diving into the EX-F1, a few words about convergence. Any time something new comes along – something that has the capability of fundamentally changing the way that we do things, or the tools that we use to do them, some people freak out. While many folks embrace change, others are frightened of it. That's human nature.
In the case of the convergence of still photography and video these are early enough days so that there are those that simply don't believe that it's going to happen, and the rest are either afraid of what the implications might be or are excited by the prospect.
But technology can be a juggernaut, and our apprehensions can't slow things down. No one is forcing anyone to buy anything, and rest assured, there will be separate still and motion cameras well into the foreseeable future. But there will also be high resolution cameras capable of shooting very high quality raw images as well as production-quality raw video, all at affordable prices and manageable sizes. The cameras that we see today, like the RED One and the Casio EX-F1, are approaching this nexus from different directions, but the convergence is beginning to happen and it will be upon us sooner than most people think.
What It Is
The EX-F1 is such a unique camera, in what I believe will be the first of a growing market segment, that it's hard to categorize. Call it a crossover, or describe its marriage of stills and video as convergence, but regardless – whereas it stands virtually alone today, it won't in the months and years ahead.
This is both a stills and a video camera. And while even the lowliest pocket point-and-shoot now records video (as do many cell phone cameras), the video produced by the EX-F1 isn't a tacked-on afterthought; it's the real deal. More on this in a moment.
As a basic stills camera the EX-F1 is pretty much in the mold of many superzooms, and looks a lot like one. It has a 36 – 432mm (equiv) lens with an aperture of f/2.7 – f/4.6. It shoots 6 MP images with its Sony designed and built CMOS sensor, which is of 1/1.8" format (7.18 X 5.32mm). In other words, the lens on this sensor has a multiplier factor of 5X over 35mm, again, typical of this type of so-called superzooms.
At just 6MP it lags behind current competitors, which typically offer 8 – 10MP sensors, but it makes up for it by offering raw mode, something rarely seen in this sort of camera. And, much to Casio's credit, rather then inventing unique raw format number 247 it shoots to the standard DNG format, so popular raw converters such as Photoshop's Camera Raw and Adobe Lightroom can handle it right out of the box.
There's much more to the stills side of the equation, but let's take a moment to return to video. The cameras is capable of shooting Standard Definition as well as High Definition video, the later in both 720P and 1080i. These are two of the most common broadcast HD formats. 1080i is 1920 X 1080 pixels, interlaced, and 720P is 1280 X 720 pixels, progressive scan.
The recording media used by the Casio is SD cards, preferably SDHC – and as we'll see, the bigger and faster the better.
If that's all that the EX-F1 was and did it would be pretty cool. As we'll see, it's a competent digital stills camera with a very good lens, offering long reach, and though at 36mm not as wide as one would wish it's certainly long enough (and as we'll see as well, for video in fact possibly too long, because the camera's image stabilization is substandard ).
But, there's more – much more. The EX-F1 is capable of shooting six megapixel stills at up to 60 frames per second, and video at up to 1200 frames per second. Neither of these capabilities has even been seen before in a consumer priced camera ($1,000 retail in the US), or in one that combines both capabilities and which can fit in the palm of one hand.
The ins and outs of how the camera shoots these high speed (and slow speed) stills and videos will be explored further below, but first, and before anyone becomes too excited, we need to address the question of image quality.
Image Quality – Quick Observations
Raw files from the EX-F1 are very clean up to and including ISO 400, usable at ISO 800, and will even do in small prints or on the web at ISO 1600. It's not going to put the Nikon D3 to shame, but it holds its own very nicely against similar digicams, and for many non-demanding users will be found acceptable as compared to lower end DSLRs. With its 400mm+ equivalent lens and small size, it will in fact prove to be appealing to many who like or need long glass but are on a limited budget.
Because the camera only shoots raw in normal mode (more on the special shooting modes soon), I found myself shooting JPGs much more often than I usually do, and was pleasantly surprised at how the camera's default settings and auto white balance did a very nice job. The camera can also only shoot raw at ISO 100 or 200 (though JPGs at all speeds), something of a mystery, or an oversight by Casio.
The real surprise is the quality of HD movies that it shoots. My colleague Chris Sanderson, a professional film maker, director, and videographer with some 30 years experience in the industry, spent an afternoon working with me comparing the results from the EX-F1 with several of the Sony HD video cameras that we use to produce our Video Journal and download tutorials.
Originally filmed to compare EX-F1 footage with our higher-end
A small joke, which will be recognized
by anyone who has viewed one of our Video Journals.
Shot with the Casio EX-F1
Initially we were amazed to see that on-screen files from the Casio appeared comparable to DV video, even though the EX-F1 only has a data rate of 8-13 mbs. But then on closer examination we started to see a number of artifacts. There is a lot of "breathing", especially at the beginning of each segment. It looks a bit like focus hunting, but it's there even when on manual focus.
There are also compression artifacts occasionally visible, such as when panning a clear blue sky. More so that one sees with the latest generation of AVCHD camcorders, such as the fantastic just-released Sony SR12. But overall the dynamic range, and particularly the resolution, actually seemed better than our older $4,000 HD DV cameras. (As of April, 2008 we are now shooting our videos with a Sony EX-1. (No relation to the Casio) ).
Now of course the EX-F1 is no substitute for a regular camcorder for the more serious worker – I'm not suggesting that. But I can say that for the casual video shooter working in HD, the results are acceptable. (I did not work in 1080I as I found that my Macbook Pro wasn't up to the task, and would drop frames. It also seemed to me that for my uses 720P was more than adequate as well as easier to work with in Final Cut. Another advantage of the Casio over an AVCHD camcorders is that the files do not need any form of conversion. They can be read directly by the latest version of Quicktime.
Video image quality degrades very quickly though as you move to higher speed shooting modes (which will be discussed shortly). But, as with the dog that can speak, it's no so much what he has to say but that he can speak at all.
In summary, as far as a quick look at overall image quality goes, both raw and JPG stills are very good for a 6MP small sensor camera, and when seen in combination with the camera's other qualities will likely be found to be acceptable.
Video quality in HD mode is good – much better than one would have expected, but because of artifacting not in the same league as a good HDV or third generation AVCHD video camera. At high frame rates there's a further deterioration of quality, but as long as ones expectations in this area are not unrealistic the value for money proposition with the EX-F1 is more than acceptable when it comes to image quality, let alone feature richness.
In The Cards
This camera requires the fastest SD cards that one can buy. Transferring 1 Megabyte per second when shooting HD video and raw files as well as streams of up to 60 6MP still files means that speed is of the essence.
There are 16GB SD cards on the market, and even bigger ones on the way. The sweet spot though is at 8GB, and at $79 including a card reader, the Sandisk Extreme III SDHC was what I purchased for use with the Casio. This is a Class 6 speed card, meaning that it's as fast as is currently available, and it will hold more than two hours of HD video. Buy two.
The still camera side of the EX-F1 and the video side each have their own shutter release, one on the leading edge of the grip where most cameras have it for taking pictures , and the one for video on the back panel where ones thumb naturally falls. And, as with many super zooms and video cameras, there is an electronic zoom control alongside the shutter release.
One can also optionally zoom the lens using the multi-mode rubber ring on the lens, and this can also be optionally used to manually focus the camera as well (but not to do both at the same time).
Viewing is accomplished with either a electronic viewfinder (and not a very good one at that), or a rear panel LCD screen, with a rear button for switching between them. The screen is not articulated, which is a drag when shooting stills, and a total drag when shooting video – at least as compared with just about every video camera on the market and not a few competitive still cameras.
As will be seen, given the large number of modes that the camera is capable of the number of available on-camera controls is surprisingly small – hardly more than on most still cameras alone. Just as small camcorders have some for some time, the EX-F1 makes many of the control selections needed accessible via a continuously visible on-screen menu, operable via the rear four-way control wheel.
This works surprisingly well, and makes ISO selection, white balance, exposure control, and so forth much more easily accessible than they would be on a scrolling on-screen menu.
But, there's one of those as well, logically broken down into three headings; Record, Quality and Set Up. Again, given that this is both a stills and a video camera I find that Casio has done a reasonable job of providing a lot of control features with only a moderate number of physical controls and menu selections.
Because this isn't that sort of review site I won't be listing ad nauseam all of the individual menu choices. I'm sure when the main camera review sites get around to covering this new model from Casio they'll do an exemplary job in that regard. In the meantime I'm much more interested in what the camera can actually do, and how well it meets user's needs.
As a straightforward stills camera one finds the selection of 6MP Raw, and JPGs of various smaller sizes. The raw buffer is small and so don't think that you can do high speed shooting in raw mode. The EX-F1 is no better than any other camera in this regard.
But, when in JPG mode the camera can shoot up to sixty 6 MP frames in one second. Or 30 frames in two seconds, or 15 frames per second for 3 seconds, and so on. In other words, it has a 60 frame buffer, regardless of the shooting rate or the file size. When that buffer is full the camera pauses to write to the card and can't shoot again until the buffer clears.
Casio EX-F1 6MP stills antimated with IStopMotion2
There is a control wheel on the top panel that allows you to select one of six different shooting modes. Among these are the ability to start recording images in a memory buffer that keeps clearing itself. When you press the shutter fully the contents of this buffer are saved along with X number of subsequent shots.
So, for example, if you're waiting for a salmon to jump out of the river into the grizzly's mouth you keep your finger half-pressed on the shutter release, and when you see it happen, the previous couple of seconds and the ensuing couple of seconds are all recorded. Pick the frame that's best and Bob's your uncle.
Another mode allows the camera to record a 60 frame sequence at a set speed and then one can constantly review the images on screen so that you can select the one that you want to save. There are also flash modes, using either the built-in pop-up flash or the built-in LED that allows up to 7FPS with regular flash and 60 FPS with the continuous LED, though the later only for close-up shooting, since it isn't that powerful.
In addition to SD video the EX-F1 can shoot Hi Def video in 1080i or 720P. Video is saved in real-time to the SD card.
Using a Mac I was unable to satisfactorily process 1080i images using either Final Cut Express, MPEG Streamclip, or Quicktime. But 720P work without trouble in all applications. How well 1080i works on a Windows machine I'll have to leave to someone else to report on.
In addition to SD (Standard Definition) and Hi Def video modes the Casio has several high speed video modes. These include 300FPS at 512X384 pixels, 600FPS at 432X192 pixels, and 1200 FPS at 336X96 pixels. There is also a variable 30 – 300 FPS setting, and the lens' multi-function ring can be programmed to become a variable speed control.
I found 300 FPS produced a very usable image, and though on the small side could be ressed-up using Streamclip to 1024X720 and mixed together with 720P footage with visibly poorer, but still acceptable resolution, at least for non-commercial purposes.
600 FPS and 1200 FPS are fun to play with, but frankly the image sizes are too small to do anything with other than to use in a high-school science fair project.
Casio EX-F1 Shot at 300 FPS
There are a number of so-called BS shooting modes available. (Really – that's what Casio calls them. I think it stands for Best Shot, not what you think).
In addition to the usual dummy modes for Fireworks, Night Shots and the like, the EX-F1 has a few special modes that play up on its unique capabilities. Among these are the ability to monitor a scene and to start firing stills sequences when a subject either enters or leaves the frame; a hummingbird at a feeder for example.
The one that I like the best, or at last find most useful for real-world shooting, is one called Digital Anti-Shake, which automatically combines a number of shots taken in quick sequence to create a single still image based on the steadiest parts of each of them. Very clever and unique.
Even after three weeks of use, and many hours of experimentation and playing, I can't say that I have the full measure of the Casio EX-F1. There are simply so many features and capabilities available that even cataloging them is a tedious chore – which is why this review doesn't even attempt to report on every mode and feature available.
It needs to be noted that there are a number of features lacking, and others which don't work as well as they should. The documentation, at least on paper, is almost nonexistent. There is a 184 page PDF manual available on disk, and given the complexity of the camera it's not badly done. But, this is a very feature-rich device, and while I usually can pick up just about any camera and figure it out within a few minutes without a manual (I've been reviewing cameras for more than 40 years), there is so much that's unique in the EX-F1 that I literally had to spend a couple of hours reading the PDF manual with the camera in hand to figure it out. Not having a printed manual when I was out shooting that first week was a real impediment to learning and becoming productive with the camera.
There were some things that simply didn't work as well as they should. The camera has optical image stabilization but it isn't very good. Using the EX-F1 alongside a contemporary Sony camcorder is an embarrassing comparison for the Casio beyond the shortest focal lengths.
The EX-F1 forgets to return to raw mode when one is no longer shooting high speed sequences – likely a simple programming bug.
There is no intervalometer and no locking cable release, both of which would make the camera useful for doing time lapse work, but without which render the camera almost useless for these applications.
Frankly, if the EX-F1 was a more capable tool I would have spent more time exploring its ins and outs in depth. As it is I've really only touched on the highlights here, though in the weeks ahead (and now that the weather has improved) I plan on spending more time experimenting.
But in the end I cut my time with the EX-F1 short because I ultimately find the camera hard to recommend to either photographers or videographers. Not because it is a poor product. It isn't, and Casio should be given full marks for bravery and innovation. It just isn't a still or a video camera that aside from its high speed capabilities will meet the needs of the more serious user.
The high speed modes are appealing, and many, such as sports trainers, will find them useful even with their limitations. But these limitations for the rest of us preclude my recommendation. At just 6MP in JPG the high speed files are simply too small for many serous applications, and in today's HD video world the high speed video capabilities are similarly less than appealing for non-experimental use. And when you take away the high speed features, you're left with a fairly basic camera that isn't compelling either for stills or video.
My recommendation therefore is that if you're a photographic experimenter and have $1000 to burn, the Casio EX-F1 will be a very appealing toy for a few weeks or months. But for the rest of us, in the end it will be found to be neither fish nor fowl. But it's a fascinating harbinger of what is to come.
I've always described the art of photography as one of "telling a story". We interpret aspects of the world through our selection of subject, location and time, and then use the tools available to us, in the form of camera, lens and image output, to refine our particular story. The viewers of our photographs are then free to make of it what they will, given what we've presented and how we've chosen to present it.
Movies (for lack of a better word, including video) are a much richer form of story telling because of the added element of multiple viewpoints, motion, time expansion and dilation, and of course, sound. Indeed shooting stills and shooting motion pictures are so different as to confound many who attempt both. A good part of the reason is that a photograph typically is a stand-alone moment in time and space. A movie / video can include sequences of times and places, arranged as its creator sees fit. This implies a certain continuity of thought. In other words, there is a narrative (even in simple documentary footage, or something as straightforward as a vacation video). In other words, a still photograph extracts or abstract, while video is more akin to painting, where disparate elements are woven together to create a cohesive whole (one hopes).
For this reason I am not suggesting that all or even most still photographers will wish to shoot video once this capability becomes in-built into what we today call a digital still camera, and neither am I suggesting that video makers will necessarily start shooting stills and making 16X20" prints to hang in galleries. But, what I do expect is to find over the next few years a new generation of image makers who don't regard the divide between stills and motion as insurmountable, and who when offered equipment that is competent in both mediums will find new ways of expressing themselves.