Friday, August 28, 2015

Sometimes there are stories behind photos

... and this one has a pretty good story.
My Dad in his Shop, late 1940s
My father was an Armenian immigrant whose family fled the genocide in Turkey by moving to Greece. He came to the USA from Athens when he was 17 years old in 1922. He spent 8 years working in a shoe factory in Boston so he could put together enough money to pay for passage for his mother and father who were still in Athens at the time. My dad died in 1979, at age 73.
He had a 10th grade education, and found work as a self taught tailor. Eventually, he opened a small shop inside the Hotel Algonquin in NYC, where he ended up meeting, and pressing the pants, of many famous people.
One of these famous people was the famed portrait photographer Yousef Karsh, who was also an Armenian immigrant from Turkey. My father ended up in the USA, and Karsh ended up in Toronto, each pursing their own crafts. Sometime in the 1940's Karsh stayed at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC, and my father and him met and became friends. I recall meeting Karsh several times when I was young. In fact, he even gave me a book of his that he autographed for me.
I remember my father telling me that Karsh once made a portrait of him, and I vaguely remember seeing that portrait. This was something really impressive for me, since Karsh pretty much only took portraits of very famous people. His portraits of Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandella, Hemingway, Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, Bogart, etc, all became iconic. It turns out he also took a portrait for a friend too. My father.
I spent many decades searching for this photo, and have come up empty handed. I have wrongly accused my brother of having it, and he searched for it too and couldn't find it. Well, an amazing thing happened today. While going through an old box of family photos to scan them, I found it! It was there in a plastic sleeve along with the 8"x10" negative!
Here is a scan of that photo. It looks like a contact print made from the 8"x10" negative, that is exactly the same size. It is printed on a high gloss thick paper. It looks like it was taken around 1948 based on my father's age in the photo.



The transparency
The print and the transparency
I wrote about Karsh before on this blog, around four years ago.  At the time I was still searching for this photo. Now, I finally found it. It will always be a precious piece of family history for me.

Are there any similar treasures lurking in your attic? 
You never will know, unless you look.  Please share any unexpected treasures you found.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Buying Cameras when there is no Camera Store

Berger Brothers Camera in Amityville NY. A great store.
There are lots of folks like me who live in small cities that don't have any camera stores. So, when a new camera comes out, and we think we might want one, we really have no place to actually see it or handle it. 

These people just don't have the luxury of going downtown to visit four or five shops to see the camera they want to buy. And based on the brand or model, we may not even find the camera selling at big box stores like Best Buy or other electronics specificity stores.

We could order several cameras from Amazon, and try them all out, then return them all except the one we like best. But this practice has problems because:
  1. This drives up the cost for everyone else by creating open box cameras
  2. It is most certainly unethical, which is a concern for some people
  3. If you do it enough, you will get a "lifetime ban" from Amazon, with no appeal
We really should take responsibility for your own situation. No one forced us to live in places where there are no physical camera shops, or where certain brands are not displayed. We made this choice for other benefits which are not the fault of camera retailers.

Incidentally, the exact same problem exists for lots of other things too. And even for Nikon and Canon cameras above entry or mid level. Try finding certain upgrade lenses even in big cities today. You almost always have to order them, even in bigger cities.

So.... how do you cope with buying cameras that you have never actually handled?
  • Step 1 - read up about and research every camera you are considering. Read all the reviews. You will discover the consensus as to their strengths, weaknesses, and ergonomic issues. When there is universal agreement about anything, it is generally true. (For example, "the GM1 might be too small if you have large hands," or "the GH3 is almost as large as an entry level DSLR." Pay special attention to any mention of button placement and other ergonomic issues.
  • Step 2 - Use online resources like camerasize.com to compare the camera you want to a camera you already have or are familiar with. You could also use the Four-thirds.org matching simulator to see what that camera looks like with certain lenses on it. These resources can sometimes tell you a lot about new cameras. Once you know what you want, then you can order it from a reliable online vendor like B&H, Amazon or Adorama.

  • Step 3 - Find others who own that camera, either by joining a camera club, or simply keeping a sharp eye out when visiting tourist spots on vacation or when travelling to larger cities. Ask others about the camera they are using. They will usually tell you all about it, and tell you what they like about it and what they don't like. But more importantly, they will let you handle it.
  • Step 4 - Find someone on Craigslist that is selling the same camera you want. Don't worry about the price, since that is often negotiable. Then drive there and meet the seller in a public place and inspect and handle his camera. He will tell you everything you want to know. If you like it, and the price is right, then buy it. If you don't, then you have just learned something, and it only cost you "gas money" to find out.
  • Step 5 - If this is going to be a very expensive purchase for you, then it makes sense to rent the camera first. And this is easily accomplished by using websites like lensrentals.com. All you need is a valid credit card to rent a camera, You could rent a camera like a GX7 for five days for $43. This could be a good investment if you are worried about whether a camera is right for you. Or, you could plan a trip to a large city to visit a real camera shop that carries that model. Or, just combine that visit with a vacation or trip already planned.
  • Step 6 - Always remember.... this is just a freaking camera, and not a liver transplant. If you strive for the "perfect camera for me" you will always be disappointed and frustrated. Just buy something that matches your needs closely, use it, enjoy it, because three years from now you will want something else anyway. I am amazed that some folks put more work into selecting a camera than selecting a wife. But, I suppose, everyone is different.
Most amateur cameras aren't so expensive as to qualify as a "major decision" in your life. Even if you buy the wrong camera it will be a learning experience for you, and it won't bankrupt you if you are forced to sell it for a loss. But the odds are, you will cope with whatever deficiency you discovered, just like you do when you buy a house or a car.

After all, it's just a box with a lens on it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Marriage Made in Heaven

Last week, Leica and Panasonic issued a joint press release announcing their extending their digital camera partnership for another five years. 

This agreement includes the extension of license agreement for use of Leica's trademark on Panasonic digital cameras products, as well as expansion and strengthening of technological cooperation between the two companies.
The relationship between Panasonicand Leica is by no means unique, but it is the most successful collaboration between an electronics company and an optics powerhouse.
In 2001 Panasonic entered the camera market with it's first digital camera the F7, designed in collaboration with Leica. This was a marriage of convenience, since Panasonic needed street cred as a "camera company" and Leica needed some help in transitioning from mechanical to electronic cameras. Like a green card marriage, both parties got something they needed from this alliance.
Panasonic wasn't the only Japanese electronics company who partnered with a German optical company. Sony partnered with Zeiss and Samsung partnered with Schneider-Kreuznach for the very same reasons. Panasonic was simply the most successful at doing this, probably because the partnership went both ways, with Leica going so far as to rebrand a couple of dozen Panasonic cameras as their own.
Leica V-Lux 20 and Panasonic ZS7 twins
The benefits to Panasonic seemed obvious. They got instant credibility by having lenses that were branded "Leica" which is a well known maker of outstanding lenses. But Leica also benefited too, by being able to cherry pick and market the best Panasonic compact cameras, and eventually a 4/3 DSLR, under their own name at a significant premium. 

They got a compact camera line to supplement their outstanding rangefinder cameras, and could be successfully marketed at premium prices to their less price sensitive customers.
Fuji MX-700 and Leica Digilux twins
Significantly, Leica got to have a complete digital camera line by rebranding the best Panasonic cameras, without having to invest in developing these cameras. They got compact cameras, travel zoom cameras and superzoom cameras, high end enthusiast compacts and even one DSLR out of the deal. Also, there probably was a royalty payment involved for using Leica branding, so Leica ended up with some revenue every time Panasonic sold a camera with a Leica branded lens.
Leica probably got some help in designing electronic components too, although very little has been said about this. In fact, it is very likely that some of Leica's electronics might have been supplied by Panasonic. And this isn't unique, because every camera maker uses parts made by electronics makers. While Toshiba no longer makes cameras, their electronic parts still find their way into cameras made by others.
Panasonic wasn't Leica's first partner. It was their third, and probably their most successful one. Decades earlier Leica had partnered with Minolta to produce compact film cameras, and even their R series SLRs. Leica did the same thing with Minolta. 
The Minolta XE-7/Leica R4 twins
For example, the XE-7 became the Leica R3, and the XD-11 became the Leica R4. And then there were the Minolta/Leica CL and CLE. There were even a few of the cheaper Minolta compact film cameras rebranded as Leicas during that period.
Before Panasonic, Leica had partnered with Fujifilm rebranding three Fuji digital cameras as Leicas in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It really has never been clear as to whether this was a real collaboration or simply rebranding for marketing purposes. Some folks seemed convinced that Leica was deeply involved with designing lenses for Panasonic, and in overseeing their quality control. Others feel they just cherry picked the best Panasonic designed models and called them their own.
My own feeling is that the truth lies somewhere between the two. I think these lenses and cameras were 100% designed by Panasonic, with some technical help and Leica, at least in the early years. At the very least, Leica probably sets minimum quality standards and always gets to pick which Panasonic cameras they will choose to rebrand as their own. We know that there must be some Leica quality standard applied, because not all Panasonic lenses are branded "Leica." Some are just called "Lumix." And this is true for both compact cameras and ILCs.
Frankly, I was shocked when Leica produced their own MILC camera. I really thought the Panasonic GX7 would have been ideal for that, but I suppose they wanted to go with the APSC sensor, and sell their own lenses for it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Little Camera That Almost Could

Nikon 1 J1 and V1
A little over two years ago Nikon launched their own MILC camera system, naming it the Nikon 1. Rather than using an APS-C sensor like Sony, Fuji, or Samsung, or a 4/3 sensor like Olympus and Panasonic, they chose to go in another direction opting for the smaller 1" sensor.

There are some real advantages to this, since a smaller sensor means smaller bodies and lenses, and also means a higher crop factor which creates more telephoto reach for a very small camera.

I think this was a pretty smart idea. Nikon 1 is actually a pretty nice system. I really like it a lot. It has an awful lot going for it.

Nikon has dubbed their 1" sensored MILC system camera as a CX mount, to compliment their APS-C based DX and full frame FX lens mounts.

Their Nikon 1 cameras are small, light with pretty decent image quality. The cameras have a hybrid PDAF/CDAF AF stystem that works incredibly well, coupled with an electronic shutter capapable of 60 frames per second! This makes it a really nice travel camera or second camera for a DSLR owner. They even created an adapter, so you can use Nikon F lenses with their tiny little camera.

Nikon 1 AW1
I'd say this system is a huge upgrade from a high end compact camera. And now they even have an underwater version, complete with a couple of waterproof lenses!

The only real problem for the Nikon 1 system is that it is priced too high. Not just a little too high, but way too high.

Believe it or not, the new Nikon 1 V3 is priced at $1200 and shipped with a detachable EVF and and a 3X kit zoom lens. For that price, you could buy a Nikon D7100, a Canon 70D, a Pentax K-3, or TWO Sony A6000 cameras. This makes the Nikon 1 V3 an incredibly poor value.

I don't know if Nikon did this deliberately so as not to sell many of them... or to sell more DSLRs instead, but the pricing just doesn't make sense.

This Nikon 1 is much better performer than a high end compact, but not as good as a mid level DSLR.... so why is it priced just like a mid level DSLR? It needs to be priced somewhere between the two. Perhaps at the same price, or a little lower than an entry level D3300.

All these MILC cameras that have failed..... Canon EOS M, Pentax K-01, Pentax Q..... fail for the same reason. They offered a poor value to the customer. But once the prices are cut for the clearance sale, then they fly off the shelves.
Nikon 1 V3

Nikon should have been priced their base model at $400 with lens. The top model with EVF should have been priced around $500 with lens.

At those prices, no one will ever buy another Panasonic LX7 or Olympus XZ-2, and Nikon might sell a few of them to people who DON'T already own Nikon cameras.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Is the sky falling?

I just took a look at the CIPA shipment numbers for April 2014, and they really are depressing. CIPA reports that new camera shipments continue to fall, losing about a third of their market each year.
This isn't meant to be about  doom and gloom. It is only "crying wolf" if the wolf never shows up. In this case, the wolf is here, and has been here for the past four years. The wolf doesn't seem to be going away. So this is just a discussion of the new reality facing photo enthusiasts, and the likely results that will come from this change.
The actual number shipped from Jan-Apr was a little over 13 million. Since it was a four month period, I projected it for the year. The actual shipment number could be higher or lower. Higher if end of year holiday sales are much higher than 2013, or lower if the same pattern of decline continues for the next 8 months. But one thing for sure, it won't be the same.
If this trend continues much longer, we will have a a very different future to look forward to. There will always be millions of people who prefer using real cameras to take photos, rather than cell phones or tablets. They aren't going away. But there will be a lot fewer of us in the future. So the industry will have to adjust to that.
The problem isn't just those cheap point and shoot cameras that we have little use for, and won't miss. This trend is happening with all cameras. The down trend is also happening with interchangeable lens cameras, although not to the same degree.
The ILC shipments peaked in 2012, and have been declining ever since. ILC volume is about where it was four years ago. A product that entered the mass market ten years ago is now leaving it, and will become just another niche product for enthusiasts.
And remember, this is all happening while the world population continues to grow, and there are more middle class people in third world nations with more disposable income for things like cameras.
These changes will have a profound affect on the industry, and to users in general. There is nothing anyone can do to reverse this trend, but the manufacturers still need to make strategic decisions to deal with it. At least if the camera makers want to stay in business.
What happens next is fairly predictable, and many of these things have already happened:
  • There will be draconian cost cutting by all camera makers. Even the market leaders are way down, so they will also have to cut labor and material costs, manage marketing budgets better. If Canon had a 40% market share four years ago, then it was 40% of 120 million units. If they still have a 40% market share, then it is 40% of around 40 million units. This is a major sea-change for the market leaders as well as the smaller competitors.
  • There will probably be some market consolidation. There may be more mergers, acquisitions and alliances, as the makers have to compete for fewer customers. Digital Imaging is now a mature technology, and is in about the same place where automobiles were in the 1920s. Back then there were over 100 different car manufacturers. Today there are less than 20. All of those GM model lines were once separate companies that were acquired by GM (Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, Pontiac, etc.) 600 local breweries became a small group of major brewers. A few hundred soft drink companies became "Coke, Pepsi and generic store brands."
  • Manufacturers will flee to the high end of the market, where profit margins are greatest. While they have pretty much ceeded the low end P&S market to mobile devices, the entry level ILC could be next, as cell phone makers create changeable lens devices for their products. Of all categories, the ILC has decreased the least, although it is still in decline. ILCs now represent 31% of units shipped, as opposed to 10.6% in 2010. Leica seems to be the maker best positioned going forward, and Casio the one in the worst spot, since they have no ILC products at all. ILC aren't more profitable because the cameras cost more, they are more profitable because once you buy one you become a lens customer. And now you are committed to one brand only, since each lens mount is largely proprietary. Lenses are a whole lot more profitable than camera bodies are, especially at the high end.
  • The industry will have to find and develop more niches in order to survive. And they are doing this as we speak. Any device that has features that are hard to duplicate with a cell phone ap will gain at the expense of those which are easy to duplicate. The number of superzoom (or more appropriately... ultrazoom) cameras sold has sky rocketed. So have waterproof rugged cameras. Cell phones are now using software to duplicate shallow DOF and their users don't seem to mind the the poor quality of the results. Those users may never come back, because for them convenience always trumps quality. 
  • Almost no one makes prints any more. Those ubiquitous giant printing machines that used to churn out 4x6 inch prints have all but disappeared from drug stores and supermarkets. If you want a few small prints today, you don't have to wait to get them in an hour. You just insert a memory card or thumb drive into a machine at Walmart, and a printer will spit them out in four minutes. And for around 20 cents per print. The days of the booklet of 24 or 36 small prints is long over. Photo sharing today means "the internet" or passing around a cell phone or tablet. Prints themselves have become a high end market for those requiring really large prints. Once the mass market stops needing prints, then they they no longer need anything better than a cell phone for their facebook pages or web blogs.
  • The MILC camera is here to stay. Yes, the overall shippment number has declined a little from a few years ago when the product was brand new, and now that the pipeline had to be filled. As a mature product, new sales are being generated by upgrades, rather than by new users. Still....  one in five ILC cameras shipped today is a MILC camera, and this product didn't even exist six years ago.  There really is a trend to smaller and lighter, witnessed by the arrival of the mini DSLR (Canon SL1). This market segment is so significant that virtually every manufacturer has tried to launch a MILC line (with varying degrees of success), and more MILC cameras are released than SLRs today. The Dpreview camera timeline tells us that so far in 2014 there were 18 ILC cameras announced. A whopping 13 of them (72%) were MILC cameras. This tells you something, even if they are being outsold by SLRs four to one. The manufacturers are clearly betting on this new product, probably because they haven't come up with anything better to attract younger buyers.
The sky really isn't falling.... it is just changing a lot. And these changes will impact the industry a lot in the next ten years. It will be interesting to see where we end up ten years from now.
What do you think?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Hobby for the Very Wealthy

Those of us who are photo enthusiasts are part of a very small elite group among humankind.
We might think that any camera under $1000 is affordable, but the truth is most of the world's population cannot even afford a $50 camera. 

In fact, I would wager that at least 90% of the human race has never owned, much less even seen a digital camera.

I can say this with confidence because according to CIPA figures roughly 1 billion digital cameras have been produced since 1999. 

But since cameras are also made by companies that don't belong to CIPA (mostly in China and Korea) the actual number produced is probably a bit higher. Perhaps 1.3 or 1.4 billion cameras.

If we assume that every digital camera ever made is still in working order and being used by someone, and that no one owns more than one camera, this works out to a little more than 1 camera per 7 human beings living on the planet.


Of course, we all know that many cameras more than 5 years old are broken, and no longer usable. And we also know that many people own more than one camera. I personally own ten digital cameras, only four of which are actually used. The other six just sit idle in drawers.

This means that perhaps only one in twenty human beings actually owns a digital camera. The other nineteen simply cannot afford it. And even if they could, there were never enough cameras made for all of them.

Owning a digital camera requires the use of a computer, some software, and some sort of internet connection. You need some sort of printer to print... or the money to pay for that service. Half of the world population lives on less than $2.50 a day , so they probably can never afford this luxury. People who don't have shoes aren't the ones who tell us "Photoshop is worth $20 a month" and "a $3,000 DSLR is a good value."

How many people in Africa, South America, or South Asia can afford photo workshops, and trips to Iceland to take photos of the natural beauty there? The average annual income for a family in China in 2012 was 13,000 renminbi, or about $2,100. That is less than $6 per day.

This hobby is such an extravagant luxury that there are actually more cars on the road today than there are digital cameras in use. And this is simply because transportation is a necessity, while taking HDR landscapes is not.


Like it or not, we are collectively a bunch of spoiled rich people. At least in relative terms.

I only bring this up to demonstrate how bizarre we must seem to most of the people living on this planet. We will have endless debates over "FF vs. crop sensor" or "equivalence theory" while most people just worry about having something to eat, or having potable drinking water.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Three Solutions for the high price of K-Cups

Since my wife doesn't drink coffee, a single serve coffee maker is something I like to have. Whenever I made a whole pot of coffee it took me three days to drink it all. So the only solution was a single serve coffee maker.

I loved my Philips Senseo pod machine, but sadly it is almost impossible to find the pods for them today.

It seems the pod machines lost out in the marketing war with the K-cup and T-Disk machines. I bit the bullet and retired the Senseo machine and bought a new Keurig B60 coffee maker.

The B60 is the middle model in the K-cup line. It has a fairly large water reservoir and can brew coffee for three different size cups.

You even have some control over water temperature, so you can brew it hotter if you prefer.

The Keurig K-Cup is really nothing more than a miniature drip coffee maker. The cup includes both coffee

and a filter, and hot water passes through it creating an almost instant cup of coffee. The system is brilliant in it's simplicity. 

There are two big problems with the K-Cup system. First, the cups are ridiculously expensive, varying from between fifty cents and a dollar per cup. For someone who drinks a lot of coffee this can really  add up to a big expense, especially when you consider there is only around ten cents worth of coffee in each K-Cup.

A cup of coffee shouldn't cost $1 even with today's high price per pound. A 12 ounce package of coffee will fill around 40 of these single serve cups. So even the most expensive coffee you can find will only cost you around 15 cents per cup.

The second big problem is that these cups aren't recyclable or biodegradable. This means if tens of millions of people are using them daily, they are creating more trash for landfills, and it is trash that will never go away.

This is because the plastics used in making K-Cups aren't biodegradable.

Keurig eventually addressed both those problems by marketing their own refillable K-Cup called "My Cup" and creating a whole new line of machines that uses a biodegradable cup, the Keurig Vue coffee maker. The only problem with the Keurig Vue, is now your Vue-Cups cost even more than the K-Cups did. Some are well over $1 per cup.

Naturally, other companies saw a business opportunity here, and started selling refillable K-Cups. There are versions available from Melitta, Solofil, Ekobrew, EZ Cups, and eventually from Keurig themselves, as well as many other brands. I actually own three different types of these, and I will share my own experience with them.

The Keurig My Cup

Keurig's own green solution is a refillable wire mesh cup that sits in a huge holder that replaces the insert in your Keurig machine. This isn't the easiest type to use, because it has three parts, and requires removing a part from your machine and replacing it with this assembly. The cost of these things is very high, at around $17, but they should last forever. And Keurig claims you will not need a paper filter with these.

pros:
It works

cons:
It is expensive
It is so expensive you can only have one of them
This means you have to clean it if you want a second cup
It is complicated
It is harder to clean
There is no paper filter, so coffee oils pass right through

 
The Melitta JavaJig

The Melitta JavaJig is an interesting solution. For $6 you get two JavaJigs and 30 paper filters. Additional filters are available in packs of 60 for less than $3. This means each cup will cost you around 10 cents for coffee and 5 more cents for a filter. Not bad at all. After using all three of these, I felt the Melitta produced the best cup of coffee

pros:
It works very well
It made the best cup of coffee of the three tested
It is cheap enough that you can own several
The filter stops oils from ruining your coffee

cons:
There are four parts involved
The paper filter adds 5 cents to the cost of each cup



The Cafe Cups

You see these sold in drugstores and big box stores, with 4 Cafe Cups, two brown and two red ones, and a measuring cup on a blister pack for around $10. The lid is part of the cup, and the wire mesh filter is built in, so it is basically a one piece cup. However, the cup is hard to clean because the grounds stick to the plastic parts of the cup, making it difficult to rinse out.

pros:
It works
It is the cheapest solution
It is the simplest solution with a one piece cup

cons:
It is much harder to clean
There is no paper filter, so coffee oils pass right through

All three of these worked, and all three worked pretty well. And all solve the problem of high cost per cup. With these you are recycling the cup and reducing waste, which is probably better for Mother Earth.

They also give you the ability to use any type of coffee or tea you please, so you can customize your coffee.  Personally, I find that an espresso grind works best in these devices, but you could use any type or grind you prefer.

Of the three, I'd say the JavaJig produced the best cup of coffee while still keeping the overall expense low. The Keurig My Cup was expensive, clumsy and complicated, and the Cafe Cups were hard to rinse out for reuse.