Sony updates RX1 and RX100, adds new flash

In a move which will not delight many owners of the 2012-released RX1 and RX100 cameras, Sony has chosen to update both of them in fairly subtle ways which improve performance without changing the basic lens specifications at the heart of each camera. The makeover to produce the RX100 II is more thorough, and includes a tilting rear screen, a new back-illuminated version of the 1.0 inch CMOS sensor, and a Multi Function Accessory Shoe which can power an electronic viewfinder or other accessories. It also features WiFi and Near Field Communication for transferring those tiny 20 megapixel files to your smartphone, perfect for direct upload to Facebook (just shoot Small JPEGs instead, keep the big raw files untransferred).


You can view the European press release about the RX100 II here.

The RX1R is less thoroughly upgraded, as it’s basically an RX1 with the low-pass (AA) filter removed. Got to admit that we could have sworn Sony originally said, at photokina, the RX1 did not have an AA filter. Its performance seemed to back that up. Then, in the release version (which was very different from the September 2012 pre-production models, even in control details) this was moderated to say that there was a special low strength AA filter. Now, in the RX1R, the AA filter is definitely removed and some new processing added to combat the resulting increase in moiré and colour artefact production which always goes with the absence of the filter. Nothing else is changed; the two models are very similar to Nikon’s D800 and D800E, and like them will be available side by side. The RX1R does not replace the RX1. Whether owners of RX1 will see it quite that way, who knows?

At this level of camera, there will be plenty of buyers who want to have BOTH bodies. Just as, with the RX100, despite version II not having the imaginary extra lens range dreamed about by those who don’t realise what’s involved, there will be many buyers for the new model who will pass the original on to a family member or keep it as a spare.

See the press release about the RX1R here.

Finally, there is a new HVL-F43M flashgun with the now familiar rotating head design first seen on the HVL-F58AM. This slightly smaller but almost as powerful flash unit has the Multi Function Accessory Shoe (and can now therefore be used with both the above Cyber-Shots as well as NEX-6, A99, A58 and future SLT/NEX/Cyber-Shot models). It has an LED light for video, also useful for modelling when using flash off camera – but get our latest issue of Cameracraft, No 4, to read my detailed article on how the quality of LED light compares to other sources!

A question which remain unanswered is – when will Sony introduce the shoe fitting GPS module which is already provided for in the pinouts of the Multi Function Shoe, on the NEX-6, RX1, Alpha 58 etc? Having this on the market would certainly make the RX100 II even more of a must-have upgrade.

Be warned (perhaps by our review of the Alpha 58) that the promoted Tri-Luminos colour display compatibility – a change in the camera’s RGB sensor filters and processing – may not necessarily make for better colour with other devices, or for printing. It’s a good reason to buy a new Sony television but not an especially good reason to prefer the new models over the old non-Tri-Luminos type.

Finally, having removed the AA filter from the RX1 to create the RX1R, we must await the arrival (or non-arrival…) of the Sony Alpha 99R. That would be logical now that a refresh to new models seems to be called for after only 6 to 12 months on the market. Perhaps that is a bit cynical. What often happens in this industry is that a product will be revised when stocks of all the components for the original batches are used up, and not enough finished product is in the pipeline to satsify predicted demand.

The RX1 and the RX100 have both been runaway successes worldwide and it may be that new production was commissioned and presented a chance for hardware changes. Firmware updates for existing owners? A second priority, but don’t give up hope…

– David Kilpatrick

To discuss this on the Photoclubalpha Forum, go to (but remember it may take a day to be activated if newly registered):

Smoke and Mirrors – an idea for Sony

With the latest Alpha 77, Sony has introduced SLT version II, the new upgraded ‘Translucent’ mirror. This is in an attempt to reduce the ghosting effects created by having an angled mirror between the lens and sensor, the image forming rays passing through a semi-silvered (pellicle) surface, through a thickness of polymer film, and then to the sensor. Having tried it out (update, September 8th) we can confirm that it works. You honestly would never know there was anything between the lens and the sensor.

But Sony, like all makers, has continued to think in terms of SLR design and the old world of film negatives and slides, where the image always had to be a certain way up on the film, or it would end up being printed and projected reversed left to right.

In the past a simple reflex mirror for a TLR viewing screen – like the Rolleiflex – did a useful job of turning an inverted image the right way up for viewing. On film at the back of the camera, the image was both inverted and left-to-right. But that did not matter, as the film was viewed through its reverse (back) side to see or print the image.

Somehow, this old design has been continued to new cameras – but today we use digital sensors. The upside-down or left-to-rightness of the image does not matter as we view the image on a screen or using an EVF. No matter how the image ends up on the sensor, it can always be the right way up and the right way round for us to view.

So, Sony, when you make you that full-frame Alpha 99 camera change the entire approach. Position the SLT mirror so it reflects the image sideways, upways or downways! And put the SENSOR where it receives the image from the REFLECTED lightpath. Make the mirror reflect 70% of the light and transmit 30%, instead of the other way round.

There will be no double imaging, no flare patches, no ghosting and not even an extra substrate or layer for the image forming rays to pass through, if the sensor receives the reflected image not the transmitted one. The AF sensor, in the meantime, can be positioned in direct line to the lens where the imaging sensor has been in the past, measuring the image through the SLT mirror.

This arrangement (©David Kilpatrick, Friday morning, August 26th 2011, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon for breakfast) will in a single stroke remove all the complaints about image degradation as the mirror will provide a perfect image.

But – would it? Slight lack of plane perfection in the SLT mirror used to transmit the image-forming light, and reflect the AF-measuring light, does not have much effect on the image. Anything less than an optically perfect mirror would fail to create a quality image. It would be like sticking a cheap filter on your lens, or worse. And of course it would never fit into a normally shaped camera body with a full frame sensor and shutter.

Solid solution

Ah – the AF sensor, unlike the imaging sensor, does not need cleaning to remove dust spots. So the mirror would not have to be movable. Actually, it would not have to be a pellicle mirror. It could be a lovely big lump of pure glass prism moulded straight on to the AF module itself, even including the condensor-collimator lenses of the AF system. It could be solid glass all the way from mirror surface to AF receptor, and the 45° front face could be to the same optical perfection as the best Sony G lens. Or even the best Carl Zeiss lens. Hell, it could be a Carl Zeiss prism and then the camera could have the CZ logo!

Diagram above: light blue = solid glass optical prism with 45 degree semisilvered front face; the two white indents at the right hand side indicate AF modules set into the prism rear face. Pink = shutter (optional, ideal system would have electronic shutter only). Dark blue = sensor. Green = top mounted waist level viewing screen, also articulated. A secondary eye-level EVF would or could be used. Design ©DK with a bit of nicked Sony lens cross-section.

Design? Rollei 6000 all the way! A professional, Hasselbox-shaped thingy to cradle in your hand. With a rotating 24 x 36mm sensor too, so that you change the format aspect by pressing a button not maneouvring the camera body. A 3 inch square OLED on the top like a giant waist-level finder, showing the image vertically or horizontally as you turn the sensor. A waist-level viewing hood for a giant magnified view. Maybe even a monster top prism for the biggest EVF you could imagine!

Mor realistically, an eye-level EVF in addition to a top plate OLED or LCD panel designed to be hinged up/rotated/twisted – rather like the LCD of the Sony Cyber-Shot DCS R-1, one of the best ever ‘waist level finder’ options fitted to a digital camera to date. In fact something like s giant updated R-1 full framer might do well.

As for the image sensor, that could be in the well of the camera (mirror aiming down) but maybe having it in the top of the camera, below the viewing screen (mirror facing up) would help gravity reduce the dust issue.

The point is – it does not matter where the image sensor is placed, it does not have be where the film once was. It does not matter whether the image reaching it is inverted or reflected, as unlike film it does not have an emulsion side or a film-base side, the electronic viewfinder is independent of the orientation of the optical image.

Future ‘SLT’ EVF cameras – especially a future Alpha 900 replacement – do not need even to resemble today’s DSLRs and can be made better by abandoning ideas fixed in designers’ minds since the era of film cameras.

– DK

Technical note: angled partial mirrors, whether prism surface or semi silvered, create polarisation effects, colour shifts and a varying efficiency of reflection depending on the angle of incidence of the ray. This is one barrier to the use of pellicle mirror design for a full-frame model, as the back focus or telecentricity of lenses relative to the format would mean a greater range of incident angles across the mirror surface. Sony appears to have overcome any such problems in the existing APS-C SLT design, and the slightly forward tilt of the mirror (not a true 45°) helps in this respect. I propose the above design in full awareness of related optical and technical issues. I’m not assuming they do not exist – they would need solving.

Four new Alphas – and two 'translucent'

It’s a funny word to use, because the mirrors involved are transparent and not translucent (which implies passing light but not in an image-forming manner). Translucent means semi-opaque, letting light through in the way that an opal perspex sheet or Kodatrace foil does. Transparent means something you can see through.
But now, thanks to the wonder of changing language, translucent is also going to have to mean transparent, or semi-transparent. Pellicle, semi-silvered, whatever term you wish to use.

Unfortunately, for this writer the misuse of the word translucent stands as one of the biggest schoolboy howlers ever imposed on the entire world by the ignorance of a corporation. It’s such a glaring error I can hardly bring myself to use the term – others, like Dave Etchells, have happily assimilated the new meaning into their technical lexicon. And as the video above shows, they’ve made it into a trademark, a permanent part of the future of this technology.
Wiki, and pretty well every dictionary ever published, disagree with Sony’s imaginative use of a word from which they have now removed its exact meaning:
Wikipedia: “Transparent materials are clear, while translucent ones cannot be seen through clearly.”


Adjective: (of a substance) Allowing light, but not detailed images, to pass through; semitransparent.
(the semi bit of semitransparent cited here seems to mean semi-detailed, vaguely delineated – not slightly darker; otherwise the primary definition of the word is diluted).
There has been some heated argument on dPreview forums about this post of mine (my view is shared by many). No-one has made the point that words evolve to have useful exact meanings. Transparent and translucent are words which may once have shared a common poetic meaning in 18th century descriptive writing, but whose meanings were refined with the progress of science and technology. This process in the course of over 200 years resulted in a useful distinction between the meanings of transparent and translucent. Sony’s commercial misuse of the word Translucent is damaging to the English language and to the scientific and technical lexicon; it predisposes future confusion about the meaning of the words.
It is also a fait accompli; there is no turning back, since Sony’s corporate stance is much like that of Mrs Thatcher; no u-turns and never admit to be being wrong. They have also no doubt invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the consultancy involved, and the registration of the term as a trademark, the creation of branding artwork.
They could have branded the mirror TransLumina® or, more usefully, just called it a transflecting mirror – transmitting-reflecting. That term is already used to describe the sort of mirrors used in ‘Big Brother’ with cameras behind them.

As to whether it’s a true pellicle mirror (a thin stretched film of vacuum coated Mylar or a similar polymer) no-one seems to be clear. It moves out of the way to allow sensor cleaning but could be relatively fragile. It certainly does not need to move to allow 10fps (Alpha 55) or 7fps (Alpha 33) continuous shooting. Sensor dust is often created within the camera by wear and tear on the shutter mechanism, so access for cleaning is essential and the mirror can not be designed to seal the sensor chamber. The Alpha models still have a shutter, that’s the next thing we shall see eliminated. That old rumour of the 15fps silent shooting Alpha DSLR seems to be more than a rumour; we are almost there.

For many users, the critical advantage of all four new Sony models will be HD Video with sensor-based in body image stabilisation. This will enable all kinds of lenses from macro to ultrawide or soft focus, manual adaptations and Minolta AF legacy glass to be used for video with confidence.
Welcome back the circular polariser, unlike mirrorless ILC cameras these new models will not allow the use of linear polarisers without AF efficiency reductions, but exposure should be unaffected as the sensor itself provides the metering with 1200 zones.
This will be one of the tests reviewers need to carry out on the new pellicle mirror Sony Alpha 33 and 55 models – to confront them with not only polarising filters, but conditions in which light is naturally polarised. How will they render sky gradations or reflections off water?
Two further Alpha models are being released, which are essentially updates for the 500/550 – the Alpha 580 which will hit the shops before the winter buying season, adding 16.2 megapixels and a 15-zone AF module, HD 1080p video and (non-video) Contrast Detect AF with all Alpha mount lenses. The 560 will not arrive until some time in 2011, using a 14.2 megapixel sensor.
Versatile features
More of a landmark than a benchmark, the inclusion of 10fps continuous shooting with active phase detect AF and 16.2 megapixel file size in the Alpha 55 is unprecedented and possibly unforeseen by competitors, in this class of sub-$1000 consumer DSLR (let’s continue to use the term, since they are clothed as DSLRs). The dual format card drive supports the 30Mb/s transfer rate of the latest Class 10 SDHC cards and Sony’s fastest MemoryStick Pro Duo generation. The HD video also has a reasonable 17mbps  bitrate.
The new technology has been well documented before the launch, but the fine detail of the new cameras is now clearer. The Alpha 55 is some markets will incorporate GPS geo-tagging for stills and videos (we wait to see whether raw files are tagged, and how accurate this is – the accessory Sony geo-tagging system available to date has only permitted JPEG tagging, and has not been accurate enough to know which street in a town the picture was taken in).

Rumours that the 33 and 55 bodies would be SSM/SAM only, with no internal focus drive, were unfounded as Sony states clearly that both are compatible with ‘the full range’ of over 30 Alpha lenses (indeed, the product shots of the 33 and 55 alone show the 18-200mm SAL DT lens fitted). The 55/33 1080i/60p (1080p in AVCHD camera archive format) video claims ‘smooth, precise’ phase detect auto focus during video shooting, but makes no reference to this being limited to in-lens motor lenses. Therefore we can assume it works with in-body AF drive lenses as well, and you just have to edit the soundtrack.
The new ISO 25,600 mode does not imply a radical sensor change as it is only available using Multi-Shot Noise Reduction, which requires a burst of 6 frames at the 10fps/7fps native maximum speed of the camera, and can not save raw files. The ISO range of the sensors is 100 to 12,800. Is this range quoted as absolute, or after accounting for the semi-silvered mirror light losses? If it’s the range before allowing for the mirror, then the 14.2 megapixel sensor of the Alpha 33 may be more like the Nikon 3100’s sensor than the NEX (ISO 200-12,800) is.
Thom Hogan has shown pixel dimensions and size data which support Nikon’s claim to have an entirely different sensor fab line of their own, compared to the A550/NEX sensor. But how about compared to the A33/560 sensor?
The 55’s new 16.2 megapixel CMOS will probably appear in the forthcoming Alpha 700 successor, which it is believed will form the main Sony exhibit at photokina (Cologne, September 21st-27th). Both models have a new 15-zone AF sensor with three cross sensors, but not f/2.8 sensors – all are designed to operate at f/5.6 virtual aperture. However, there is a hidden clue that the cross sensors may be f/3.5 capable, as the high-speed shooting modes with continuous AF set f/3.5 by default on any lens capable of this (if the lens is, say, only f/5.6 then the largest aperture is always set). Setting f/3.5 implies that this confers an advantage in focus sensitivity over f/5.6, f/4 or any other particular aperture – and that f/3.2, f/2.8 or wider would bring no benefit. That points to some of the sensors having an f/3.5 virtual aperture.
The new cameras are known as SLTs – Single Lens Translucent – instead of SLR. See my intro. Did they have no English speaking staff on their team? I’m sure there is a German word which describes their mirror correctly. I’d rather have the right German word than the wrong English one. Ah well, as the bloke leaning on the pub bar says, durchsprung vor technik
Confusing aspects – Auto HDR is said to be available in P/A/S/M modes. I guess in M mode it must leave the aperture alone and change just the shutter speed. Regular bracketing is still limited to a disappointing 3 exposures at 0.7 EV intervals, maximum.
But you’ll love the direct D-Range button which gives access to D-Range and HDR options directly, and the direct Finder/Screen button which toggles between using the very high resolution EVF with its ‘virtual 1.1X’ 100% view of the subject – effective visual scale, larger than the Alpha 700 and larger than any previous Alpha digital model except the Alpha 900 and 850. That’s one of the benefits of the EVF, a relatively tiny display is viewed through a high magnification ocular and ends up with a ‘window’ on the world which beats the tiny tunnel vision of optical finders. Technically it is very similar to the last EVF produced by Konica Minolta on the Dimage A200, with the benefit of five years’ further development. It has the same 60Hz refresh rate and visually almost raster-free RGB.

Where the A550 and its earlier stablemates vary slightly around a viewfinder with an effective 0.50X scale (relative to a full frame 100% view using a 50mm lens), the A55 and A33 provide an effective 0.73X and that’s impressive. The ocular is set well back (remember the Konica Minolta A2, and the Sony Cybershot DSC R-1?) because it is a telescope design. This also gives it a very narrow range of possible eye positions, a common feature of EVFs. The eyepoint is close, and you must position your eye precisely.
The rear screen uses the same type of (Schott?) reinforced glass with (3M?) resin gel adhesive as Canon’s 7D – this totally seals to the LCD module itself eliminating air gaps, and improves contrast. It is a technology first seen in the 7D and becoming standard across the industry though the NEX has shown Sony to have the best implementation so far. It is scratch proof, by the way, and it can be cracked by impact like any other screen.
The tilt-swivel action is borrowed directly from the Nikon D5000. In fact, it’s so identical in articulation it even included the amazingly silly front facing mode where the screen is obscured by your tripod, hanging under the camera and preventing it from being placed on a flat surface for self-portraits or videos. But it has the same benefit as the Nikon, the screen can be flipped to face the camera and protected completely while you use the EVF.
Functions familiar from the NEX including Sweep Panorama and Sweep 3D Panorama are built-in and accessed from the main mode dial, which also provides physical settings for all the main modes. Depth of field preview is restored – with the usual button – because is can now actually work. It was always useless in real terms on optical viewfinder cameras, as the focusing screen never represented wide apertures correctly.
Now, with an EVF, for the first time ever an eye-level Alpha gives absolutely perfect and precise previewing of depth of field and bokeh effects whatever aperture you are working at – even at f/1.4, which was never possible and still isn’t with the A850 or A900 for that matter (which is why their Preview mode is useful).
You can also preview the exact image appearance. By pressing the AE lock button, the auto gain of the EVF or rear screen are turned off and replaced by an exposure-compensated view. So if you dial in -1 EV (using the adjacent dedicated button), and change the WB, and use a different picture style with more saturation and contrast just pressing AE-Lock will immediately preview your image with these adjustments applied. And you can enlarge in the usual two steps to check auto or manual focus.
The finder and screen also have a Nikon-style two axis spirit level (flight simulator horizon) display to help you get your horizontals straight and your verticals parallel. It can be activated on either, and does not have to appear on both simultaneously.
For movie makers, the binaural stereo microphones are a great move. Even on the NEX, the two small top aperture mics give excellent stereo. The 33/55 mics are placed either side of the ‘prism’ housing, rather like the ears on your head. This will give the stereo image created by these cameras a really natural quality. Natural, that is, to a pygmy marmoset monkey… but still, I will wager, the best stereo image of any DSLR/HybriD. And Sony provide a stereo 3.5mm mic jack socket, though without any manual control of gain levels.

I’m sure we will have to buy the A780 to get that. Click the picture above for a big version. Who says Sony does not have a range to match Nikon or Canon, whether or lenses or of cameras? From the left, the cameras show the current range before we even see the magnesium-bodied Alpha 700 replacement arrive. A900, A850, A580, A560, A55, A33, A390, A290.
– David Kilpatrick
Read Sony Press releases and full technical data:
Alpha 33 and 55 Press Release
Alpha 560 and 580 Press Release

Sony NEX Launch – detailed transcription

The European press launch
David Kilpatrick recorded the proceedings at Le Meridien Lav Hotel, Split, Croatia on March 11th 2010 using a Zoom H2 portable digital recorder. Shirley Kilpatrick transcribed the audio, with subsequent editing to translate verbal output to read well as text. This is a multi-page document please use the PAGE navigation at the foot of each page to continue reading. It is a very long document.
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Sony NEX generation launched

SPLIT, Croatia, breakfast over – Sony Europe presents the new NEX-3 and NEX-5 mirrorless, HD video capable slim interchangeable lens APS-C digital cameras. This has been a launch anticipated by almost complete and accurate leaking of the specifications of the two cameras. Sony UK also provided advance information to all dealers, including pricing, before the press launch – allowing retail websites to have full data up and running as from May 11th.

Toru Katsumoto presents his team’s latest offering (he holds a silver NEX-3)
The entire system with accessories is to be available in June at once, no waiting for anything except the 18-200mm lens which will arrive a month later. Edit: the brochure says ‘October’ for the 18-200mm, at the presentation it was said that it would follow in a month or so. October is four months or so.
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Nikon D3S video: dark, rain and wind 400mm f/2.8

As part of my tests of the Nikon D3S (British Journal, report in December, with additional material by Richard Kilpatrick who is shooting with Nikon on November 25th at a press event) I dragged the £6,000 400mm f/2.8 AF-S IF ED G supertele into the rain as darkness gradually forced the ISO up from a mere 10,000 to the maximum 102,400. The object was make a short video showing rising floodwaters, no threat in our town but still dramatic to watch.


Here’s how it came back from the hour in the rain, a quick wipe down with an oily rag and it was all as good as new. Actually, it needed a thorough drying with the towel then a clean up with a lint free microfibre cloth to remove dust and towelly stuff. The very deep lens shade kept the exposed front element totally dry despite the wind and rain; I just made sure it was never aiming into the wind.

During the shoot, wind noise was a major problem. I locked the microphone to level 2 manual gain, not automatic which would have been a disaster. Many clips had to be shortened, some discarded due to violent wind noise I could not mask. The sheer weight of this combo made lugging it with a decent Slik tripod (pan and tilt head for video) difficult; I drove to the evening location with the rig laid flat on the back seat of the car, but still had to walk several hundred yards for some shots. I wore a Tog24 parka and found that by pulling the fur-lined hood over the camera body I could cut out nearly all the wind noise. I must have looked like a view camera operator with a dark cloth, or something out of Monty Python with my jacket pulled up and the hood over the Nikon!

But, this seemed such a good solution to the wind noise I would consider unzipping the hood from the parka and using it as a baffle in finer weather.

My favourite part of the video is the one with the worst noise, where I was not able to keep the wind away from the direction of shooting – the sequence of the road (flooded by the morning) with headlights, tail lights and cars in rain. This consists of three takes blended with long crossfades. During each take, the manual focus of the 400mm used at near wide open f/3.2 aperture was pulled to bring the moving traffic in and out of focus, and create huge bokeh circles from the lights. This would be impossible with a camcorder and not all that easy with a conventional high-end video kit. The combination of full frame 35mm format and the fast 400mm has enabled a highly effective cinematic technique to succeed on the first time of trying. With some markers on the focus ring, some practice and many more takes the result could have been refined further.

But I was getting very wet and so was the camera!

The first part of the video is all on the 400mm with tripod, with High ISO video enabled. The ‘next morning’ stuff is on the 24-70mm, hand held, locked down to ISO 200 at f/8.

I’m not sure when our final review of the camera will appear in the British Journal, it should be early December.

The video is encoded to best quality 720p from iMovie09, and can be best be downloaded and viewed without any YouTube jerkiness at full res if your connection is not good.

– David Kilpatrick

Alpha 550: sky noise, exposure and Auto ISO

My review of the Alpha 550 has caused controversy because of the blue sky noise. I might as well say that over the last week, I’ve used the 550 in a wide range of conditions – some very bad conditions included – and its failure to match ISO 100 finesse would not worry me at all. The performance at higher ISO settings is so much improved it’s worth putting up with the minimum of ISO 200, and a touch more noise than the best ISO 100 results from the Sony CCD sensors.
Even so, something was clearly happening during the period of sunnier weather used for my earlier A550 tests. I used Auto ISO initially, because I had not realised how readily the camera will select settings right up to 1600. Auto ISO has thrown up some surprises. Here’s something to consider:
Please note that although ‘process’ symbols are shown with these Adobe Bridge/ACR images, the defaults were restored and then each picture was set back to defaults. They are all shown relative to each other in density, the image preview built by ACR. There is no question of DRO or any other tonal setting interfering with the apparent exposure – DRO does not affect the .ARW file, ACR discards any DRO generated embedded preview in my setup prefs, and DRO was not being used anyway.
It has already been noted by other reviewers that the A550 has considerably more headroom without clipping, even compared to the A350 which was already a top-ranking camera for dynamic range. This is what I meant when I compared its default images to Canon with Highlight Tone Preservation switched on, or KM/Sony older models using the Hi200 setting. This can mean that the A550 is really ISO 100 at its lowest on-sensor gain setting, but the exposure system is programmed to underexpose by a stop and the post-processing (BIONZ) is set up to boost the gain.
Why would Sony do this? Perhaps they read the many posts referring to the Alpha 900 and 700 ISO settings. The on-sensor gain controls the main ISO steps, but a rather cleaner post-process gain adds the 1/3rd step intervals. Experienced Alpha 900 users set ISO 320 manually because the sensor is at its optimum at roughly ISO 160 (DxO tests bear this out). The standard ISO 200 setting can produce more noise than ISO 320 because two different digital stages are used to produce the gain.
In search of superior high ISOs, they may have realised that the early gain stage (on the chip assembly) is inferior to the later BIONZ processor, and you can indeed get better high ISO by underexposing a lower ISO setting, then processing it with clipped blacks. That’s a Nikon technique, which has served them well. It’s also a technique used by experienced DSLR owners.
Now consider the four shots above. They are all taken at ‘ISO 200’ but the camera was set to auto ISO. Other shots in the same set show ISO 250, 500 etc confirming the auto ISO was in operation. They are taken in the afternoon in Scotland, so it is fairly near to the end of the day for sunshine by 14:49hrs, around an hour away. But the two locations at 50 minutes apart, 14:00hrs and 14:49hrs, should not have the extreme variation in exposure shown here.
Just what is going on for an exposure of 1/400th at f/11 to look correct at ISO 200, with the dark sandstone buildings of Jedburgh at the end of October? 1/400th at f/11 is the ISO 200 exposure for full sunshine in midsummer (aka f/16 light). You hardly ever find f/16 light in Britain unless you are on the beach, surrounded by pale concrete, in a field of golden corn or out on a lake.
50 minutes later, exposures range from 1/60th at f/11 to 1/100th at f/11 – that is, more or less, from two to three stops more. In fact these exposures are in line with what I would expect, it’s the 1/400th at f/11 which is the odd one out. I have no evidence to suggest that my CZ 16-80mm has an aperture which fails to stop down consistently.
Now look at some sky samples:
Here is an in-camera JPEG version which shows less noise – the in-camera process is equal to using much stronger NR in raw conversion than I would normally choose for ISO 200:
Now for the same processed from raw – notice that despite the noise, it is slightly more detailed or sharper:
This is a reprocessed second version of the original noisy sky instance. Here, I have used Adobe Camera Raw 5.6r1 defaults, which include some basic sharpening and also 25 on the chroma NR scale. No exposure adjustment is made at all. This view, by the way, looks more or less due north and it is not a case of a brighter sky underexposed; also, the stone and the chimney pots look normally exposed.
This is the 1/100th at f/11 shot, processed exactly the same way. It’s interesting in that I expected to see much lower noise, but in fact it’s much the same. The sky density is similar as well. The view is slightly more towards the east. While my Alpha 380, 200, 100 and even 700 shots are capable of showing blue sky noise at ISO 100 and as much as this as 200 it’s not as obtrusive.
Finally, this is the 1/60th exposure – perhaps more what would be expected at ISO 100 in this light with f/11. Here, I have set -1 EV exposure reduction in Adobe Camera Raw to get much the same final sky tone density. The noise is lower.
Checking other images I’ve taken since, I am now suspicious about the Auto ISO function in the Alpha 550, and whether it reports the gain applied to each shot accurately. It’s hard to reconcile the same ISO 200 setting shown in EXIF with the range of exposures encountered, and the actual exposure of the raw file. Yet ISO 250 was also selected for this shot taken a few minutes before the chimney shot:

This is also included in the main report (click image to view full size on pBase). If I darken the sky as much as the other examples, I get noise similar to the 1/60th ISO 200 clip, or better.
Since making these tests, I’ve started using the Alpha 550 only on fixed ISO settings, with some misgivings as intermediate gain like ISO 250 or 320 might possibly be yielding better results. I just feel something is happening in the BIONZ stage, perhaps involving analysis of the Auto ISO images and compensation for deviations from the reported EXIF Auto ISO setting. This is just a hunch. Fixed settings seem to be equal to the worst case from Auto ISO. Here’s a textbook example, 1/125th at f/16 for a blue sky on November 3rd, facing due north, at 14:19hrs, ISO 200 fixed setting, ACR 5.6 defaults as above:
The answer seems to be to overexpose your manual ISO 200 shots by not simply one stop, but as much as two stops when shooting raw. At least if Adobe Camera Raw is used, recovery of normal tones (not burned out highlights) will fully restore the exposure from 1 or 2 stops over depending on the subject.
Here is an overexposed image, taken at 1/80th at f/10, ISO 200, in mid-day sunshine:
Below is what the sky looks like in a normally exposed image (1/250th at f/10), processed using Adobe Camera Raw defaults (including sharpening at 25/1/25/0 and NR at 0/25), looks like:
And here, finally, is what an adjusted ACR process from the overexposed image looks like with sharpening turned off, NR set to 25/50, exposure and brightness determined by the simple process of using Auto (which can be set as a default in ACR if you want to consistently make generous – over – exposures ‘to the right’):
This is much more how I expect to see a sky looking from the base ISO of a 2009 DSLR release, viewed at 100 per cent. From this stage, different types of sharpening can be applied to suit resized versions for different purposes.
Results with other raw converters, as more become available for the Alpha 550, may be finer in noise structure than ACR or may offer less scope for overexposing – ACR is well known for its ability to recover highlights. I do not intend to go much further into this with tests of converters, but I hope I have shown how the ‘true ISO’ of the A550 is difficult to pin down especially in Auto ISO mode, and how it is possible to benefit from the great high ISO performance of the camera (just use it!) and at the same time secure good low ISO results for travel and landscape shots where a clean blue sky is important.
It’s important to note that in-camera JPEGs will not necessarily show similar noise levels. If they do it’s not so easy to fix without using NR software. I prefer to shoot raw for many reasons.
So, why not be very happy with the Alpha 550 as a choice? Here are two pictures. You can view the full size Alpha image, and the Nikon D3S image resized to match 14 megapixels, by clicking on the smaller size here. Of course the Nikon image is better, though 1/250th at f/5.6 and ISO 400 is more of a step away from 1/250th at f/9 and ISO 200, and I’m not sure the light was SO different on the two occasions:
Alpha 550-250Sigma-iso200-web
Nikon D3S-400mmf2p8Nikkor-iso400-web
– DK

Sony Alpha 550 Review: highs and lows

My review of the Sony Alpha 550 was supposed to appear at the end of November, allowing one week abroad in good weather with plenty of subject-matter, in Tenerife. Sadly that trip had to be cancelled, and the Nikon D3S arrived for review on the day we were meant to have travelled. So, with far too much work to do on the D3S, I’m “going to press” here with my initial thoughts based on a fairly short time using the Alpha 550.
There are 11 pages in this review, please use the Next Page navigation at the end of each page to continue reading. A sponsor link appears before the end of each page – “Get camera lenses at’s affordable deals.” Our thanks to for spotting and sponsoring this review!
This review has been updated August 2010 – see the second to last page for new Adobe Camera Raw Process 2010 results, a massive improvement with Alpha 550 files.
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Ricoh seal the future of interchangeable lenses

Tokyo, Japan, November 10, 2009—Ricoh Co., Ltd. (president and CEO: Shiro Kondo) today announced the development and release of the GXR interchangeable unit camera system featuring the world’s smallest and lightest* digital camera with the ability to change lenses.


The new GXR is an interchangeable unit camera system in which lenses are changed by using a slide-in mount system to attach camera units to the body. The lens, image sensor, and image processing engine are integrated into the camera units so the body itself does not contain an image sensor.


With world-leading small size and low weight* enabling easy carrying, the GXR interchangeable unit camera system features a highly rigid magnesium alloy body and multiple camera units that can be changed to best fit the scene to be photographed. You can enjoy easy lens changes as well as amazing image quality and shooting flexibility. Concealing infinite possibilities in its small body, the GXR is a revolutionary camera system that pioneers a new realm of photography.

Distinctive characteristics:
1.    Lens, image sensor, and image processing engine comprise an integrated unit which can be changed to match the scene being photographed.
2.    World’s smallest and lightest* digital camera with interchangeable lenses
3.    System potential expanded through use of interchangeable units

Comment from David Kilpatrick:

Though the Ricoh system as revealed through this press release appears to show only a GR-size body with a zoom lens module suitable for a 2/3rds or slightly smaller imaging sensor, Ricoh has said that sensors right up to the size of APS-C will be built in to further lens modules. The ultra-wide angle version would have an APS-C sensor making similar to the Sigma DP-1. For similar reasons, high ISO and fast lens may be combined with a different size of sensor.

This is not the first time a digital camera has been designed with lens-sensor modules that could be changed. The Minolta Dimage EX 1500 accepted either a standard zoom module, or a wide-angle module. These included viewfinders (missing from the Ricoh concept, which relies entirely on the rear screen or electronic viewfinders) and had the unique ability to be removed from the camera on a 1.5m long Cable EX. This allowed users to position the wide-angle module inside scale models, doll’s houses and similar subjects to obtain realistic human-scale perspectives. It was only a 1.5 megapixel camera, and Minolta abandoned the concept before they had a chance to develop it further, whatever dPreview said ten years ago:

The technology behind the Ricoh is not all that different from the way consumer digital cameras are constructed anyway. Lenses are already sold sealed to CCD/CMOS sensors, as a single unit. That is how the OEM sources of the lens-sensor modules market them. At photokina, you can see (every two years) a new crop of such modules with both the technical resolution specs of the optical unit and the megapixel count of the sensor, identifiable to this non-Chinese/Japanese reader in the middle of a description which is usually inb Chinese. In 2006, I tracked such a module from its maker to the first camera I could find which used it – a compact branded as Vivitar. The customisation consisted of building any body the maker chose to design, and putting a ring on the lens front labelling it is a high resolution Vivitar lens; actually, it was just a generic lens-sensor assembly from China.

Ricoh has also pioneered unusual digital designs in the past, including rotatable or detachable lens modules and one of the first viewfinder-less designs, where the viewing screen was intended to be used at waist-level rather than today’s habit of waving the camera in front of your face.

This differs from anything previously done in the power of the CPU unit in each lens, and control module with screen display and card interface in the host body. It should allow any reasonable pixel count and sensor size to be built in to future optical modules. If the accessories do eventually include dedicated APS-C lens-sensor sealed modules, ‘dust on sensor’ will be one clear benefit (or the lack of it will). A supertelephoto module is also planned which will use a sensor smaller than APS-C.

New Photoworld edition on-line

The Autumn 2009 (No 4 2009) issue of Photoworld mails out to subscribers on Monday November 2nd.
You can also read the edition on-line at YUDU – we have now changed the price for each individual edition to £2.50 (from £3.00) so that if you buy single edition access, a year costs exactly the same as a normal yearly digital subscription of £10. All YUDU subscriptions and sales support the Photoclubalpha website and forum. The price including the printed edition is £25 per year (worldwide).

Click to launch the full edition in a new window.
Each issue now has six sample pages viewable without purchase.

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