What's This? Mirrorless Digital Medium Format? At a Reasonable Price?

The "big two" players in the digital camera space have got to be scrambling at this point, seeing their market being decimated by the likes of Fujifilm and Olympus and Sony and Panasonic. Fujifilm will soon be shipping their latest DSLR-killer, the X-T2, which I commented on Sunday evening.

Yet, as enticing as the X-T2 is, I'm more intrigued by the rumor of a Fujifilm mirrorless medium format camera. And Hasselblad have been quietly busy, and recently thrown down the gauntlet in this space with their announcement of the X1D digital mirrorless medium format camera with a street price of just under $9,000 for the body (one of the two bargains in the digital medium format market). Word on the street is that a Fuji product could be considerably less expensive than that.

Fujifilm GSW-690iii medium format rangefinder camera with 90mm lens

Fujifilm GSW-690iii medium format rangefinder camera with 90mm lens

Hasselblad have started development of a completely new lens lineup for the new camera, and will offer an adapter to allow use of their existing H-series lenses.

I would suppose the Fujifilm would take a similar approach, although they have some considerable experience with making short-flange-distance medium format film cameras that filled big frames -- 6x7cm, 6x8cm or 6x9cm, depending one the model. While these cameras had fixed lenses (typically a 65mm wide angle or a 90mm normal lens) it's possible that they could look back to those designs in a digital offering, though the resulting camera would be positively huge.

In each case, these could be medium-format digital cameras that are both smaller than a high-end DSLR (the Hasselblad is smaller), and come in at similar price points -- or lower (Canon's 18MP 1D-C body is $8,000 at B&H)! With these kinds of innovations in the mirrorless space, companies like Canon and Nikon really are going to need to get their collective heads out of their asses and get on the stick if they intend to survive, let along continue to dominate the market. It's no secret that Nikon is struggling, and while Canon is a larger, more diverse company than Nikon, they certainly can't be in a comfortable place right now.

I wouldn't count Ricoh/Pentax out in this arena, either. They're already the price leader in the more "traditional" digital medium format arena with their excellent $7,000 645Z, which was the first digital medium format camera to employ a CMOS sensor. Similarly priced bodies do not include a digital back, which add thousands to the price tag. Since Pentax also have a mature system in place, they could easily swoop in with a low-priced, mirrorless design and be up-and-running quickly, although I think it would take them longer to develop a lens line-up for such a camera.

Of course, while much of this is out of the price range of most mere mortals, it's all interesting food for thought.

Fujifilm's New X-T2: Some Thoughts

First things first: THIS IS NOT A REVIEW! There are many reviews of the X-T2 available on the interwebs. And since, for some reason, Fujifilm opted to not send me one of their shiny new X-T2 bodies to play with, it would be rather difficult for me to write an actual review. I have no idea why they'd make such an oversight, except maybe that the folks at Fujifilm USA don't really know me from Adam.

Anyway...

When I first started writing this post two days ago, I had intended to write about how I didn't see myself wanting an X-T2, and that if I were to move "up" from my current bodies (X-E1 and X-E2 with v.4 firmware) that I would most like add an X-T1 to my kit. I had a very good experience with a rental X-T1 a few weeks back, and found it an absolute joy to use.

From the reviews, test pictures, and videos that I've seen over the past few days, I'd say that Fujifilm have pretty much tamed every shortcoming I found in the X-T1 and my X-E bodies.

For the record, here are some key features of the X-T2:

  • 24MP X-Trans CMOS III sensor
  • 325 AF points (169 of which offer phase detection)
  • AF point selection joystick
  • 2.36M-dot OLED EVF with 0.005 sec refresh time (60 fps or 100 fps in boost mode)
  • 3" 1.04M-dot articulating LCD
  • 4K UHD video at up to 30 fps for up to 10 min (30 min with booster grip)
  • F-Log flat profile and 4K out over HDMI
  • 8 fps continuous shooting with AF (11 fps with booster grip)
  • 5 fps continuous shooting with live view updates between capture
  • Dual SD card slots (UHS-II compatible)
  • USB 3.0 socket

There are a few points that pique my interest...

The articulating LCD is pretty cool, and a first for Fuji. It features a dual hinge system that allows it to bend around in a number of directions. I've never had a screen that articulates before, and so I don't miss that, but back when I had the old Minolta A-1 and A-2 cameras, I had one that flipped outward for either waste-level or over-head viewing, and that was pretty handy (the X-T1 has a flip-out screen, and it's something I wish they'd add to the X-E series).

AF tracking appears to be superb, for those who need such things. In fact, one video I watched showed absolutely flawless follow-focusing of a fairly-fast-moving subject, even when the camera was being visibly shaken. Now, we all know that I don't really care a lot about video in a stills camera, but knowing that the autofocus tracks so well applies to the dance and performance photography that I like to do -- and currently struggle with.

I'll stress again that I haven't had this camera in my hand, but one thing that may be disappointing is that the camera is slightly larger than it's predecessor, which is contrary to the general trend with mirrorless cameras. That said, it may feel really good. I won't know until I rent one (yes, I do intend to actually play with one and let you know how I fee about it -- maybe Fujifilm will see this and offer to send me one for a week or two).

An X-T2 still isn't in my plans at this point. I've only recently bought the X-E2, and I'm still coming to grips with all the improvements that brought me (except that On1 doesn't yet support the raws for editing, so I'm having to work from the excellent JPEG files). Which brings up a point -- I shoot RAW+JPEG and, though I generally don't use the raw files, it's always good to have them around.

The X-T2 introduces dual SD card slots, and can be configured to write JPEG files to one card and raw files to the other. To me, this is actually one of the most enticing selling points of the camera! It's not that I can't separate the files relatively easily on my computer, but it's not so easy to do that on an iPad. To date, transfers off the SD card to my iPad have copied both files, but only allowed me to access the JPEGs. While that may be addressed in the next release of iOS, it would be very convenient to be able to pull out just the one card and transfer images into the iPad for quick edits.

Another improvement is in the way the camera handles continuous shooting. The current models display the last recorded image between the blackouts that necessarily occur when the mechanical shutter is cycling. That behavior has been improved with the X-T2, which in addition to decreasing the blackout time, displays live view instead, improving the ability to track with a moving subject. With the X-E1 and X-E2, I find that I will start to "lag" behind the movement when panning and shooting continuously. It's pretty frustrating when an otherwise perfect bird-in-flight shot is missed because the bird's beak or bill or head is out of the frame.

Dammit Fuji! This actually looks enticing now.

Fotojet Free Online Collage Maker - An Update

Late last year, I was invited to review a web service that offered a free online "collage" maker. At the time, I found that for the price, it couldn't be beat, although I also found that there were some basic changes that would go a long way to enhance the product.

Recently, the folks at PearlMountain Technology, who run the service, asked me to take another look at Fotojet. Here's a quick summary of what I've found.

First up, the collage portion of the site is pretty much the same as it was back in mid-December of last year. It still works, and still works well, with the same caveats I noted in that earlier review. In other words, the same shortcomings are still present.

fotojet's new online image editing screen.

What has been added to fotojet is a basic image editing feature. While pretty basic, it's not half bad, and there are some nice effects. On my laptop, it runs smoothly.

The editor is broken down into four functions - edit, effects, text, and clipart - each of which offers a selection of controls.

Edit is a basic image enhancement tool, and offers most of the common tools. The familiar layout allows pretty much anyone who's used any image editor to get a nice result quickly. One thing to watch out for, though, is that you must apply any changes made in one sub-menu before moving to another sub-menu.

In the effects section, you'll find a nice selection of pre-rolled image effects, most of which are a little "over cooked" in my opinion. Each effect offers a single slider to alter the intensity of the effect. Effects can be stacked, but like the Edit functions, you have to apply one effect before moving on to the next. I played around with the sample picture of the girl with the hat, and came up with what I thought was a pleasing result.

fotojet's social media sharing screen didn't render correctly on my computer by default. I had to change the text scaling settings for it to display correctly.

Once you finish with an image, you have the option to save the image to your hard disk, or share on social media. Unfortunately, the sharing option screen doesn't display correctly, at least on my computer.

You'd think that another option for your completed image would be to use it in a collage or design. However, when you switch modules, your image is lost, and I can't see any way to transfer it over, short of saving it to your computer and re-uploading.

While I didn't try using fotojet on an iPad or Android tablet, I can imagine that, if it works at all (it didn't when I reviewed it previously), you'd be hard-pressed to be able to utilize it to its fullest potential.

So, while adding the editing module to fotojet is a nice addition, the integration could be better. Frankly, if I have to edit, download, and re-upload an image to use in a collage, I'm probably going to go ahead a prepare my images in another application, such as On1 Photo Pro. If I'm looking to use an online solution, I'll probably opt for the quite mature and robust Polarr app. While not free, these applications offer far greater control over the final output.

The bottom line is that, while there's some good functionality in the new version of fotojet, the work flow just isn't quite there. And, there haven't been any substantive improvements in the older modules.

You Spin Me 'Round (Like a Record)

Pioneer PL-530 two-speed automatic turntable

For those who have been following along, I have selected a turntable for my vintage stereo project. I mentioned previously that in my original system, I had a Pioneer PL-516, and that I had really wished I could have afforded at least a PL-518. Even better would have been the PL-530.

The PL-530 was a direct drive, two-speed, fully automatic turntable. It featured separate pitch adjustments for 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm, and you could also choose between 7", 10", and 12" record sizes.

The PL-530 was fairly unique in that it used two motors -- one for the turntable drive, and a second to handle the automatic cueing and return functions. The idea was to eliminate speed imperfections caused by using the main motor to also operation the gearing for the tone-arm movement.

As with other things, I could never afford one of these, nor could I afford the semi-automatic, dual-motored PL-520, nor even the single-motored, direct-drive PL-518. So, there you have that. Now, of course, these gems are nearly impossible to find in any condition. Those that are out there are still expensive.

One interesting bit of '70s hi-fi history is the link between Pioneer and Radio Shack. Radio Shack, at that time, would never sell anything other than their own Realistic brand of stereo components. But, they never hesitated when it came to contracting other companies to build things for them (for example, the Moog-built ConcertMate MG-1), and for a number of years, Radio Shack's better stereo gear was built or designed by none other than Pioneer. I remember looking down inside the vents of many Realistic receivers when I was young, and seeing the Pioneer name and logo printed right on the circuit boards or other parts!

In 1981, Radio Shack introduced the LAB-420 automatic turntable, which appears to have been inspired, in part at least, by the Pioneer PL-530. It shares many of the same features -- 2-speed direct-drive, dual pitch controls, three record sizes, etc. -- but not, apparently, the dual motors. A more traditional "power take-off" to actuate the automatic start, repeat, and return functions. Reviews at the time were favorable, and remain so to this day. And wouldn't you know it: Jim (remember Jim?) had one available at a very reasonable price. So I bought it.

This particular example, like the SX-450, has a few cosmetic blemishes (mostly, the wood-grain laminate is peeling around the lower edges), and it's missing the dust cover and hinges (something I've always removed and stored away), but otherwise it functions reasonably well. All I needed to add was a new cartridge and head shell.

Back in the day, as we say, I used Pickering cartridges and styli pretty much exclusively, because they offered very good sound at a reasonable price. Interestingly, while they're still made in the USA (and have been for 70 years!), the only places that seem to sell them any more are in Europe -- they don't even have a US web site that I can find. And, they're no longer particularly affordable.

Ortofon 2M Red MM Cartridge

Ortofon 2M Red MM Cartridge

No matter, I'd always wanted a Grado or Ortofon cartridge. A little research turned up that Grado have basically been making the very same cartridges they did in 1979, which only incremental improvements to the designs. Now, as then, their lower-priced models receive decent reviews, and all of the reviews indicate that they can take months to "break in" and sound their best.

Ortofon, on the other hand, have not be resting on their laurels. While updated versions of the same old models are available, they've also released completely new lines, and based on the range of music I like to listen to, it seems that one of their newer models would be my best choice. So I ordered the 2M Red MM Cartridge, along with an appropriate head shell, from Turntable Lab in Brooklyn, New York.

Dual 1219 Automatic Record Changer and United Audio turntable cabinet.

Some of you who know me well may remember my affinity for the Dual 1219 turntable with a Pickering V15 cartridge, and may be wondering why I didn't opt for one of those. I did consider another 1219, but ultimately decided that I wanted a direct drive turntable, and that I didn't want a changer. I also didn't want the maintenance headache that all the mechanics in the Dual turntables entail. Don't get me wrong -- they're brilliantly designed, but when they do break down, they're a major pain to rebuild. At one point when I was still using a 1219, I had one working and two more for parts.

At this point, I'm more interested in listening to music as opposed to tinkering with mechanics. In other words, I want something that simply works.

So, what was the first album I played? Well, it certainly wasn't Dead or Alive's You Spin Me 'Round, that's for sure! No, I chose my original release of Boston's self-titled debut album from 1976 -- one of the first albums I bought after buying my first turntable, and one of my all-time favorites. Unfortunately, as I mentioned the other day, when I went to pull the album off the shelf, I discovered that it, along with several other rare or important records, were missing from my collection.

The package of records actually arrived the day before yesterday, and the package with cartridge, yesterday. So last night, despite my having a searing migraine and feeling rather ill, I installed the cartridge and set up the turntable.. I balanced the tone arm, and then chose a tracking force of 1.25 grams, towards the low end of the recommended range. I placed the record on the turntable, clicked the lever to the start position and watched as the tone arm lifted, moved over the lead-in groove, and lowered the needle. Nice.

Unfortunately, the record didn't sound as nice as it looked! In fact, along about halfway through Peace of Mind, there was a horrible skip, and then it launched into a jump-and-repeat routine. "So much for that 'Very Good +' condition rating," I thought to myself as I got up and stopped the record. I decided to not even listen to the rest of the album, and moved on to my old copy of Rush's 2112.

2112 started out well, and played decently until somewhere in The Temples of Syrinx, when Neil's drumming literally kicked the needle out of the groove! "Hmmm. I guess 1.25 grams tracking force is a little too light!" I consulted the guide for the cartridge, and decided to try a setting of about 1.8 grams, and try again.

That setting change corrected the skipping problem, and markedly improved the sonic quality overall. I decided to try the Boston album again, and while still not a "VG+" across the whole record, the listening experience was still quite enjoyable. It certainly brought back fond memories! And that, my friends, is what this particular venture is all about.

 

The New Laptop - What I Actually Bought, And Why

Last week, I wrote a piece with recommendations for buying a new laptop for photo and video work, and at the end of the posting, I recommended two particular computers: the Asus Zenbook Pro UX501VW-DS71T at just shy of $1,500, and the Toshiba Satellite S55T-C5166 at just shy of $900. Both of these machines are still excellent choices. But I didn't buy either model.

My choice instead was to go with another Acer. My previous machine was a 17.3" Acer Aspire 7740, and for nearly six years, it's served me quite well. The one serious problem I had with it was taken care of quickly and efficiently by Acer, and otherwise, it's been pretty much flawless. For these reasons, I'm pretty comfortable with Acer.

I also looked closely at my needs, to determine if there were any places I could "cut back" a little to shave the price down a little bit. Here's what I ultimately chose.

Acer Aspire E Model E5-575G-76YK
$699.99

So, what, exactly, did I have to "give up" to shave between $200 and $800 off the price tag? In all honesty, not a lot that will affect the things I want to do.

First, the processor. This machine includes an Intel i7 6500U at 2.5GHz. That's the 2-core version of the processor instead of the quad-core. If you'll remember, for photo and video work, a lot of the heavy lifting is, or will be, handled by the graphics processor, not the main processor. And dual cores are generally plenty for the rest of the work to be done.

Second, the display. The Aspire E5 I bought has a 15.6", matte-surface, 1920x1080 "Full HD", non-touch display. This display has advantages as well as disadvantages. The disadvantages are lower resolution and no touch display, assuming these are really going to be considered disadvantages. As I mentioned before, Full HD graphics are just fine for photo editing and lite video editing, especially on a 15.6" display. The matte display reduces glare and is less prone to showing fingerprints. While many matte displays also tend to look "dull" or "flat", Acer have employed new screen technology to make the images really bright and punchy.

The display is quite pleasing, though it does suffer a little more off-axis shifting than I'd hoped it would. Certainly, it's not bad enough to worry about, especially when running on AC. I have the backlight cut back a lot on battery, so the effect is much more pronounced when I'm not plugged in.

Finally, while not particularly heavy at just around 5lbs, this is not one of those super-slim machines. In fact, at it's thickest point, it's about 1.25" thick. In this day and age, that's a little chunky. Frankly, I can live with that.

So, now that I've told you what I "gave up" to cut back the price, here's what I gained.

While the supplied SSD is only 256GB, it's the newer M.2 form factor. That leaves space within the machine for an empty 2.5" drive bay, into which I've installed the half-terabyte SSD I originally put into the old machine. That will give me an excellent configuration of a very fast 256GB drive for the operating system and software, and a larger SSD for data storage.

This model of the Aspire E 5 comes with 8GB of DDR4 SDRAMM in a single SODIMM module. There's an additional SODIMM slot available, allowing easy memory expansion. Unlike many laptops, memory can be expanded to 32GB! That's quite impressive for any laptop.

Even with space taken up by two SSD drives and two SODIMM slots, there's still room inside for a full-size DVD-writer and a 6-cell battery.

The machine is bristling with ports, too. Scattered around the sides are an HDMI graphics port, a VGA port, a USB 2 port, 2 USB 3 ports, a USB-C port, an RJ-45 10/100/1000 ethernet port, and a 3.5mm combination headphone/microphone connector. Under the front edge, as on my current Acer, is a SD card reader.

Wireless connectivity is robust, too, with 801.11 ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.1 included. Finally, there's a 720P webcam camera and a built-in microphone.

So far, I've talked about everything except the graphics processor. This is another gain over the previous machines, too. Instead of the 9xxM series processors of the other computers, the Aspire E 5 features an NVidia 940MX with 2GB of DDR5 VRAM. In all of the applications I'm interested in, the MX GPU will not only outperform the older M-series, it can also do better than the GTX 940 GPU.

System specs:

  • Intel Core i7 6500U Processor 2.5GHz
  • Microsoft Windows 10 Home 64-bit
  • 8GB DDR4 RAM (Expandable to 32GB)
  • 256GB M.2 SSD Drive
  • Available 2.5" SATA Drive Bay
  • DVD Writer
  • NVIDIA GeFORCE 940MX discrete graphics with 2GB DDR5 VRAM
  • and Intel HD 520 integrated graphics
  • SD Memory Card Reader
  • 802.11ac Wireless Networking
  • Bluetooth 4
  • 15.6" Full HD Matte Display
  • USB 2, 3, and C Ports
  • HDMI Port
  • "VGA" Port
  • RJ-45 Ethernet Port

As mentioend, I've added a 480GB SSD Drive from PNY (the one I had put in the older Acer Aspire 7740). Additionally, I've installed an additional 8GB RAM.

So far, I've been generally quite impressed with this machine. To say it's fast is an understatement. Loading Word, from "click" to the "choose template" screen takes about 3 seconds. On1 Photo 10.5.1 rendering is nearly immediate, although I've developed an odd problem with Fuji X-E2 RAW files from my most recent shoot at Gettysburg (they didn't open correctly in On1 on the old system, either). Even Lightroom, which can be tortuously slow zips right along, and actually appears to be using the GPU. My chosen software for video work, the free version of DaVinci Resolve seems to be pretty responsive. I'm not familiar enough with the software yet to be a really good judge, but it's cut together some downloaded HD videos, and played them back from the timeline with no skips or dropped frames, even when rendering basic effects. I've not installed any audio editing software, but I'm fairly certain there will be no problems with that at all.

The keyboard feel is very good, even with the short-throw keys. I can type as fast as I ever do, with no problem. The keys are back-lit, and I'm not sure yet whether that's a big deal or not. Most of the time, so far, I've found it distracting and turned the light off. The touch pad is generally quite responsive to both single- and multi-touch controls, yet is still pretty good a rejecting false touches, but can be fooled on occasion. Although the "button" presses are a little spongy, using the pad is really quite predictable.

In general operation, I've yet to hear the thing make any noise at all. I'm not even sure if there is a fan in it.

Windows 10 is Windows 10. It's fine, and I was able to set up all the networking, peripherals, and all three of the wireless printers in the house with no problem. The only problem I'm having with Windows is my own doing, I think. One thing to bear in mind with Windows 10 is that IPv6 needs to be left on in the network settings if you want to set up any kind of peer-to-peer sharing or use Home Groups. Both of these functions require IPv6 to be enabled to function in Windows 10.

Acer Aspire E DVD drive, viewed from the bottom.

When I put the second SSD in, I basically just grabbed it out of the old machine and stuffed it into the new one. It mounts fine, but because it was still set up as the boot device, there are lots of permissions problems. I've got most of them cured, but I still can't seem to get ownership of everything so I can remove stuff that doesn't need to be there anymore, even though I've authenticated the machine with the same user credentials I've used with the old system (synced from my Office account). No real worries. I'll get it under control eventually. The reality is that I do generally like Windows 10, much better than Windows 7. Microsoft have moved a lot of things around, and it's taking me time to find things "under the hood."

If I have any complaints at all with Aspire E laptop, it's that the DVD drive feels a little delicate, and that there's a little more plastic than I'd like in certain places.

The Other Side of Gettysburg

So here's the deal. I have somewhere just shy of no interest in the Civil War. However, I live less than 45 minutes from one of the most famous Civil War battlefields of the war, Gettysburg. In fact, Westminster, MD, where I live, was also the site of a significant battle. Still, we drive up there every so often, and I take pictures. While most people are busy taking pictures of the monuments and the cannons and whatnot. And, while I do take a few pictures of the typical battlefield accoutrements, most often, I turn around and take pictures of other things.