May 4, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Digital SLRs bring lens quandary
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But for wide-angle lenses, a narrower field of view is undesirable. "The one area where the focal length multiplier is a real problem is in the area of wide-angle lenses, said InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee. "To get to a 28mm focal length you will need an 18mm lens, thus forcing some people to buy a new lens."
To make small-frame cameras useful, market leaders Canon and Nikon now concentrate on new wide-angle lenses for digital SLRs, such as Nikon's 12-24mm zoom lens and Canon's 10-22mm competitor.
A standard 50mm lens on most digital SLRs gives a much narrower field of view than on film SLRs. Here are the conversion factors to calculate equivalent focal length.
|Canon low-end (Rebel XT, 30D)||1.6x||80mm|
|Canon high-end (5D, 1Ds Mark II)||1.0x||50mm|
|Canon high-speed (1D Mark II N)||1.3x||65mm|
|Kodak (DCS Pro SLR/n, SLR/c)||1x||50mm|
The conversion issue hasn't been a big problem for Canon because digital SLRs appeal chiefly to experienced buyers, said Chuck Westfall, director of media and customer relationships for the company. "People well understand what they're getting into before they plunk down their money," he said.
That view is reinforced by retired British fireman Chris Brooker, a member of the Harpenden Photographic Society whose activities include taking photos for the Wheathampstead Dramatic Society.
"The 1.6 crop factor seems straightforward," he said. The only controversy he sees is whether 85mm is still the ideal focal length for portrait photography. (Yes it is, he argues convincingly.)
Millner plans to upgrade to a full-frame digital SLR now that Canon released the relatively affordable--though still $3,000--EOS 5D. But it's not a problem that Canon's digital SLR-specific ES-S lenses don't work on the EF-only 5D. "I'm not worried, as I have never bought EF-S lenses," he said.
Canon's lower-end digital SLRs aren't a technological dead end, either. Those cameras' smaller sensor size, called APS-C, "is clearly here to stay," Westfall said. "Because of the cost factors, that's going to be the sensor we end up concentrating on for the entry-level cameras for the foreseeable future." And Canon has begun bringing exotic, high-quality lens elements to its EF-S lenses, though not the weatherproofing of its high-end "L" series of EF lenses.
Canon's EOS 1D Mark II N uses yet a third standard, an intermediate-size sensor with a 1.3x conversion factor to balance processing speed with image quality. "We'd like to continue using that size as well," Westfall said.
Unlike Canon, Nikon has moved to a single "DX" sensor size for its digital SLRs.
"One thing Nikon designers have been very consistent in is maintaining a constant size of our DX sensors," said Steven Heiner, senior technical representative for marketing at Nikon. The sensor size provides good image quality even with its higher-end 10.2-megapixel D200 and 12.4-megapixel D2X, he said.
Olympus, which is hoping the digital revolution will help it reclaim prominence in the SLR camera business, isn't worrying about compatibility between its old-style OM lenses and new models using its "4/3" system. (The 4/3 label refers to the squarer proportions of the image sensor; by comparison, 35mm film frames have a wider proportion of 3 to 2 instead of 4 to 3.)
"We decided to go ground-up digital," said John Knaur, senior marketing manager for digital SLRs at Olympus Imaging America. "In the film camera market, we weren't a major player toward the end of our career. We didn't have a warehouse full of film camera lenses. That allowed us to look at the requirements for digital photography and take a much bolder step than a lot of our competitors did."
The same clean-slate situation applies to a new entrant in the digital SLR market, consumer electronics giant Panasonic, which is using the same 4/3 system as Olympus and therefore gains access to lenses for Olympus cameras.
"We don't know what the future holds for image sensor changes. But the platform has been built so that, going forward, there is compatibility with anything in the 4/3 system," said Richard Campbell, director of imaging for Panasonic.
Even for those who can't afford to alienate existing customers, redesigning lenses for digital SLRs has opened up new options.
"We're able to create lenses that could not exist for 35mm. Their size, weight and cost would be so prohibitive that we wouldn't sell any," Heiner said. "We once upon a time had a 13mm lens for 35mm systems. It weighed three times as much as the camera and cost as much as a car."
As buyers adjust to the conversion factors, new technology could lead to a resurgence of the older standards, Lee said. "I expect that in the future, full-frame sensors will become more affordable and therefore more popular and will make their way into less expensive consumer digital SLRs," he predicted.
Either way, Canon is unruffled by fluid digital SLR standards.
"The bottom line is what you see in sales," Westfall said. "It's the fastest-growing category in the entire digital-camera market."
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