Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Focus on Imaging 2009

This year the 'Focus on Imaging' exhibition celebrated it's 20th year. It was not quite as glamorous though since there was little new to see from the manufacturers. It was a good opportunity to get some hands-on with some cameras but overall there was nothing very exciting.

Last year the biggest attraction for me was the long awaited and even longer delayed Sigma DP1. Unfortunately the excitement to finally see and handle it turned to big disappointment, the DP1 was just not a finished product and even after a few firmware updates is still remains a flawed camera. Now if I would have been confronted with the DP2 instead, I would have owned it by now. You can find last year's report here.

This year was my chance to see the DP2 and find out what and if Sigma improved. Thanks to reviews and honest user feedback, that pointed out the many shortcomings, Sigma had enough to go on and make the DP2 the camera the DP1 should have been a year ago. It does not feel like a beta product anymore but instead feels like a finished camera.

The DP2 is the same build and size as the DP1, I still find it plasticky when holding and it simply does not have a very solid feel. Unlike the GRD I or Ricoh cameras that just feel right to hold the DP1 feels a bit boxy. Some people like it but I can't really get excited about the build and design of the camera. It definitely misses out on a hand grip, luckily you can buy a 3rd party one that works great in it and should be a must buy if you consider the DP1 or DP2. Aside from that the build is good for a compact camera, just not for a serious compact camera. Someone also needs to give Sigma some white paint to put it on the black symbols on black buttons.

Powering the camera on you will see that the screen does not look much different at first and is still a bit washed out and it has a slight greenish tint to it. But pan around and be impressed by the improved refresh rate, gone are now the horrible ghosting effects the DP1 screen shows when panning indoors. This is a big improvement and should now make it easier to use it indoors. It is still not a great screen and the worst of any serious compact camera at the moment but it is now at least as good as the GRD I screen.

The handling has also been improved by allowing the zoom buttons to change the aperture in M- and A-mode and shutter speed in S-mode and using the left/right buttons to change the shutter speed in M-mode. The new QS-button gives easy access to the main options like ISO, WB, Quality etc., pressing the down arrow takes you instantly to the focus point selection screen and pressing it up still changes the focus mode. This is much better than on the DP1 where you have to browse through two menu pages to change the same settings. Unfortunately you can't choose the options that are displayed when pressing the QS button (or at least there is no way to do it yet). The re-arranged buttons also work much better and are now easier to reach, with some paint on them they would be also easier to see. The focus wheel is also a bit stiffer now and provides better feedback when you move it, it will stay in position better and be less likely to move accidentally.
One thing I don't understand is the placement of the camera setup menu on the main mode dial. The camera setup menu won't be used much so why waste the space on the dial for this if it could be just put under the main menu. Speaking of the menu, although it is as un-intuitive as you would expect from the DP1 menu it is slightly improved. You don't get thrown out of the menu each time you confirm a change but why you have to use the Display button to go back on the selection I won't understand, you can however navigate to the next item using the zoom buttons. Thanks to the new QS button however you don't have to go into the menu that often so this will not a major problem.

The speed has been heavily criticized on the DP1 and it is very slow for a camera sold under the premise of "The power of a dSLR in you pocket". Where the DP1 lacked any power (aside from the IQ) even compared to a cheap p&s camera, the DP2 is a good improvement. The AF works faster now and the camera is ready to take another picture after only 2-3 seconds and does not lock up fo 6 seconds. Now this can compare better with the current serious compact cameras and should make it way more attractive. One issue with the DP2 which has remained the same as on the DP1 and that I also pointed out on my GX200 review is the screen freeze when focusing. This, together with the focus priority, for me is unacceptable and needs to be fixed in any serious compact camera. While it looks like a side effect of the contrast detection AF, Canon shows with the G10 that this can be minimized and be hardly noticeable. Not a big problem if you use manual focus or an OVF but still something that should not happen.

The 40mm lens will also be easier to use for many people but the most welcome change is that it is now much brighter at f2.8 and together with a ISO of 3200 (at least what Sigma aims for) should make it way more usable in low light than the DP1. A lot of people will be very pleased to hear this.
Overall the DP2 is a good and necessary improvement over the DP1 and would it have come out last year, it could have been a massive success. As it stands at the moment it will be more difficult if Olympus really delivers their m4/3 camera. Having the ability to change lenses and use old m-mount legacy lenses on a compact camera will be very appealing to most people. To some the Foveon sensor in the DP2 will be enough reason to consider it over any other camera. For me it will depend how the cameras will be priced and how they perform. I will also wait to see what Ricoh has planned for the GRD III and Samsung does with the mini APS camera.

The other camera I went to check out after the DP2 was the Canon SX200 IS. Now, if there is a company that does not take any risks and tries to tick all boxes for consumers it must be Canon. Their p&s cameras might sell in masses to the p&s crowd but are boring otherwise. With the SX200 Canon does not even know who they are trying to sell the camera to. Is it for the p&s crowd or for enthusiasts? The manual controls point to enthusiasts but the pop-up flash that pops-up and can't be closed while the camera is powered on has been done for people that need to see a flash on their camera. Only Canon knows why it's impossible to automatically pop the flash up only when needed (like the GRD I did years ago). The camera looks completely ridiculous with the pop-up flash up all the time so you better get some tape to fix this.

I have also asked Olympus for any news about their m4/3 prototype shown at Photokina but at the moment there is nothing new. There will be an announcement at PMA 2009 however so we should know more soon.

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