Big sensor, tiny camera

When Nikon announced the Coolpix A in 2013, I spent a few minutes ogling it online, but I knew it wasn’t for me — with a price tag over $1000 and not-so-fast autofocus, it wasn’t a good value. That has changed. These cameras have begun to appear on the used market for around $300 in very good condition. I got this one for $320 in its original box with CDs, instruction manual, warranty card, USB cable, battery, charger and (unused) neck strap. The 16 MP APS-C sensor is a champ — I’m quite familiar with it, since the same sensor is in my old Nikon D7000 and in my Pentax K-5. What’s different is that the Coolpix A packs that relatively-large sensors into a genuinely tiny camera.

I suspect that the reason the price is so low on these cameras is that they don’t have built-in WiFi, a feature available in most new compacts. Of course, you can wirelessly transfer photos with an Eye-Fi card, or you can use Nikon’s Wu-1B adapter, which will also allow wireless control of the camera from a smartphone or tablet.

Autofocus is so-so, but as a walking around camera it is more than adequate. And it looks completely harmless, which might be an advantage. There are some venues where “professional-looking” cameras are forbidden (sporting events, concerts), but where point-and-shoots (and camera phones) are permitted. With a wide-angle lens, this camera wouldn’t be much use in a football stadium, but if you can get close to a stage or close to the action, photos from the Coolpix A should be real keepers. I’ll post again when I have sample images to share.

The Coolpix A shares an identical sensor to the Nikon D7000. The built-in 18.5mm lens offers a similar angle of view to this Voigtlander 20mm prime.

The Coolpix A shares an identical sensor to the Nikon D7000. The built-in 18.5mm lens offers a similar angle of view to this Voigtlander 20mm prime (but offers autofocus and a larger maximum aperture).


New Hottness

New Hottness

A photo of my new camera, photographed with my other new camera.


Nighttime panoramas with the Fujifilm x10 camera

Several posts on DPreview.com have emphasized a problem with the Fujifilm x10 camera and a phenomenon of  “white orbs.” Those reviews make the white orb problem sound so bad that they make the camera almost unusable. The white orbs are supposedly visible in low-light photographs that include bright points of light (such as streetlights in night scenes) — the white points of light overexpose and bleed over surrounding pixels. Sounds pretty bad, but I have been playing with my x10 in all kinds of lighting conditions and I have not found this problem to be much of a nuisance.

Yesterday at dusk I was walking across the UT Austin campus and I decided to shoot a few sweep panorama photos with the Fuji x10. These were shot handheld at high ISO, but the results were nevertheless impressive from such a small camera. You tell me: are the “white orbs” here any worse than you would expect to see in any photo shot under these conditions with a compact camera?

The UT Austin campus at dusk


Fujifilm’s leather case for the x10 camera

My wife gave me this handsome case for my new Fujifilm x10 camera. The case is fitted to hold the camera with the lens retracted and lens cap on. It’s nicely constructed and compliments the retro styling of the camera. My grandfather had a variety of Leica, Exacta and Contax 35mm cameras from the 1940s and 50s with similar cases.

The top half of the case can be unsnapped and folded back, allowing the photographer to use the camera without completely removing anything. Unless you completely remove the top half, though, you’ll have quite a lot of material hanging behind or below the camera, which could get in your way and inhibit handling. You can completely remove the top of the case and shoot with the camera still nestled in the bottom half (but this creates a problem: where to put the top half while you use the camera).

Unlike some similar cases for other cameras, this case does not feature a threaded screw to attach the bottom half of the case to the tripod socket on the bottom of the camera. This makes the camera slightly less secure. (It could fall out if you had it in the bottom of the case only and if you were moving around very actively–running, jumping, etc.) On the other hand, it is nice to be able to simply lift the camera out of the case without having to unscrew anything from the tripod socket. I like to shoot with no strap attached to the camera, because a strap around the neck inhibits movement and a hanging strap can catch on things or get into the frame and spoil a shot. With this case, I can use the strap on the case to carry the camera, then lift the camera out of the case (with no strap) when I want to shoot. The only problem is that the strap attaches to the case through two leather loops that close with simple snap fasteners–these can easily come undone and your camera will drop free of the strap. Yikes. A strap attached to the lugs on the camera itself is much more secure.

Bottom line: this case, like the Fuji x10, is attractive, but not meant for serious professional use.

The handsome fitted leather case for the Fujifilm x10 camera.

The Fujifilm x10 easily lifts out of its case, with no threaded bolt attached to the tripod socket.

With the top half folded back, you can use the camera, albeit somewhat awkwardly.

Here you can see the precarious snaps that attach the strap to the case. Note also that the case slightly obstructs access to some buttons.


First impressions of the Fuji x10 camera

The Fujifilm x10

Despite limited supply, I managed to get my own Fujifilm x10 Camera a few weeks ago and play with it a bit. The x10 falls into the category of “enthusiast compact camera,” meaning that it has several advanced features that will appeal to serious amateur photographers. Most importantly, the Fuji x10 offers manual (and easily accessible) control of exposure. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO and exposure compensation can all be adjusted with just a few clicks, turns or button presses — rather than a hunt through several layers of menus. White balance adjustment can also be accomplished with a minimum of fuss.

The sensor in the x10 is physically a bit larger than you’d find in most point and shoot cameras, which should translate to lower noise at higher ISO settings. Combining this larger sensor with a wide aperture will also produce shallower depth of field than would be possible on most point and shoot cameras. The lens of the x10 zooms through a range with angle of view (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera) equivalent to 28mm-112mm. Impressively, it offers a maximum aperture of f2.0 at the wide end of the zoom range, and maintains a maximum aperture of f2.8 even at the telephoto 112mm. Fuji has a reputation for making excellent optics — high-end Hasselblad H2 lenses are made by Fuji. (Yes, I know that many Hasselblad lenses are made by Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach–but indeed, many lenses for the H1 and H2 are made by Fujifilm, as were some earlier Hasselblad lenses for film camera systems like the panoramic XPan.)

The retro styling of the x10 is reminiscent of Leica rangefinder cameras, including an optical viewfinder located off-center above the lens. Most compacts forgo an optical viewfinder in order to reduce the size of the camera, expecting the photographer to compose with the LCD instead. Using the LCD has some drawbacks, though — it eats up battery power and can be hard to see in bright light. The optical viewfinder on the x10 is not TTL. Consequently you won’t see an accurate representation of depth of field, and at macro range you’ll have a severe parallax problem if you try to use the optical finder. (The finder does zoom with the lens, though.)

The Fujifilm x10 is approximately the same size as an Olympus PEN. Note that the Olympus is wearing a 17mm prime lens (no zoom) , whereas the lens on the Fujifilm zooms from wide to telephoto. The Fujifilm x10 also has an optical viewfinder and a pop-up flash, which are not included on this Olympus. (The micro four thirds sensor in the Olympus is larger than the sensor in the x10, though.)

I don’t like the supplied “slip on” lens cap, which is much bigger than typical snap on lens caps. The lens cap for the x10 is made of painted aluminum, and I immediately dinged mine by dropping the cap (not the camera) on the sidewalk while fumbling to put it in my pocket. Annoyingly, the lens cap must be removed in order to turn the camera on — even if you intend only to navigate menus and change settings on the LCD screen. To turn the camera on, you begin to rotate the rotate the zoom ring on the lens. To turn the camera off, you rotate the lens past the 28mm mark. Another reviewer speculated that users would be forever turning their cameras off accidentally while trying to zoom the lens. I don’t think that’s likely, because there is a positive tactile stop you can feel when you hit 28mm.

The fujifilm x10 offers approximately the same feature set as other compact enthusiast cameras, such as this (discontinued) Canon Powershot G9.

The Fujifilm x10 is not as pocketable as this Canon G9 Powershot, because the Canon's lens retracts completely inside the camera body. The Fuji lens offers significantly wider aperture, though. (f2.8 at maximum telephoto, compared to the Canon's f4.8.)

The x10 is approximately the same size as the Sony NEX 5 (or 5n, which has the same form factor) with wide angle pancake lens. The x10 is a bit taller, to accommodate the flash and viewfinder.

A more accurate size comparison between the Fujifilm x10 and the Sony NEX 5: Here the Sony is equipped with an 18-55mm zoom lens, which has a shorter zoom range and smaller maximum aperture than the Fujifilm x10. Why are interchangeable lenses so much bigger than zoom lenses on compact cameras? Because the larger sensor (like the APS-C sensor in this Sony) require a lens that can project a larger image circle, big enough to extend beyond the corners of the sensor with minimal vignetting.

One of the headline features of the x10 is Fujifilm’s EXR sensor, which promises to allow the photographer either to shoot at maximum resolution, or to sacrifice resolution for greater dynamic range or lower noise. In my limited testing of the x10, the EXR features have so far proved underwhelming. I will shoot some additional test photos and post them here with an update of this review.

Another frustration was the limited support for the x10’s RAW files. When I first received the camera, neither Adobe Camera Raw nor Apple Aperture supported the x10. So while I could shoot RAW photos, I could not open them on a computer. Today I downloaded the recent update to Adobe Camera Raw, and I was able to process a few images. I was disappointed to see that at ISO 400, photos from the x10 exhibited considerable luminance noise. I was also surprised to see that, though I had set the camera to shoot both RAW and JPEG photos, the images I shot in EXR mode were recorded as JPEG files only (no accompanying RAW image was recorded).

This JPEG image was shot on the Fujifilm x10 at ISO 800 using the camera's EXR mode for increase dynamic range. The dynamic range is pretty good, but the noise and JPEG artifacts are a problem for me.

The Fujifilm x10 offers a sweep panorama feature. Depress the shutter and slowly sweep the camera across 120, 180, or 360 degree panoramas. The camera takes several exposures and stitches them together. In order not to exceed the capacity of the buffer, the camera captures a series of standard quality JPEG images to create the composite. When you begin shooting a panorama, the camera's LCD shows a horizon line and uses the internal accelerometer to let you know if you're moving off axis as you sweep. This is a fun feature, but not one I'm likely to use often. If you want panoramic photos with better image quality, shoot a sequence of overlapping RAW photos and use the "Photomerge" feature in CS5 to stitch them together.

Photographed with the Fujifilm x10 at ISO 400. RAW (.RAF) file converted using Adobe Camera Raw 6.6


World Trade Center Photographs

I was working at the Department of Photography and Imaging at NYU when the towers fell. To see them, we had to take turns leaning out the window of the photo studio on the 8th floor. My colleague Karl was leaning out the window when the second tower came down. “They’re gone,” he said, straightening.

Six hours later, when the L train was again running, I returned to my apartment in Brooklyn, got my camera, and took this photo on the banks of the East River

I remembered that I had taken this photo, in February of 2001, in which the World Trade Center was visible in the background.

I returned to the same site and took this photograph in September of 2001. The smoke from Ground Zero is illuminated by rescue lights, and silhouettes the Woolworth's building.

Weeks after the attacks, I walked with my neighbor Susan along the banks of the East River, and we found the still-burning candles at this impromptu shrine. Susan sat down among the candles and I took this photo, which was later included in the book Here is New York and the related exhibitions.


Congratulations to Philip Levine, the 18th United States Poet Laureate

I met and photographed Philip Levine in 2001, when he was teaching poetry at New York University, where I was a grad student. Levine is one of my favorite poets. His books What Work Is and The Simple Truth are terse, readable monographs that use plain language strikingly.

In the classroom, Levine had a reputation as an honest — simetimes harshly honest — critic. When a friend of mine submitted a poem to his workshop for critique, several of her peers took turns praising one particularly beautiful line. Levine listened patiently to all the congeatulationd, then offered his own blunt assessment: “It’s a fine line,” he said. “Why don’t you put it in a poem?”

I asked Levine if I could photograph him, and he agreed, on the condition that it wouldn’t take long and wouldn’t be overly complicated. I followed him around the Village while he ran errands. We talked while I shot one roll (16 frames) of medium-format black-and-white film with my Contax 645. Here are a few of the resulting photographs of Philip Levine:

This image is available for license: info@mattvalentine.com

Levine succeeds W.S. Merwin as US Poet Laureate. The two men are both outstanding writers, each with a totally unique style. I had the opportunity to photograph Merwin in 2005:

January 2019
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