Friday, August 12, 2005

The Pixel-Pushers' Agenda

The Internet is a wonderful place if you are looking for real-world reviews of photographic equipment. Everyone has their opinion and there are tons of web sites and news groups where they can make those opinions known. Many of the opinions are valuable, coming from people who actually use the equipment and can clue you into the quirks and annoyances of the particular piece you are interested in.

But in a world increasingly divided into Digital vs. Analog, many people who parade themselves on the Web as experts are anything but, having a need to push their own agendas. What they have to say may not always be impartial, or even correct.

Case in point: A recent user report of Leica's new Digital-Modul-R (DMR) digital camera back on the Digital Outback Photo (DOP) Web site.

Entitled the "Leica DMR Experience Report," the review covers many of the digital basics: technical specs, review methodology, etc. It also offers some sample photos, shot with the back and Leica lenses. All this to give the review an air of authority.

But where they give away their bias in favor of anything digital is in the test photos they publish and their evaluation of them.

"The images at ISO 100 and 200 are pretty good and 400 quite usable. We would use ISO 800 only in exceptional circumstances. The noise patterns is about the same as we have seen with other cameras that use Kodak sensors."

The only problem is that looking at the photos, particularly the ISO 200 and ISO 400 shots, anyone who is not half blind can see that the noise is incredible. The noise gets progressively worse as the ISO range increases.

Now, this is nothing new with digital cameras. Most people expect the noise to increase at the higher ISOs. It's just a fact of digital life. But stating that the images are good at ISO 100 and 200 and usable at 400 proves that DOP has blinders on when it comes to digital photography. Either they have very low expectations or they are seriously deluding themselves (and anyone who believes the review).

From the 100% crops in the review, its clear that the ISO 100 shot is the only "usable" one in the bunch. At ISO 200 the noise is becoming apparent. At 400 and 800 the noise renders the photo useless.

In fairness, the Kodak sensors have had a reputation for being noisy above 400. At least they used to. But the company has worked the problem and seems to have worked out the bugs. My Kodak DCS Pro 14n digital camera was pretty much useless at anything above ISO 400. It uses a similar sensor to the one Kodak sells to Leica for the Digital-Modul-R back. But I had the camera upgraded to a 14nx model, which uses an updated sensor. The camera now takes wonderful pictures all the way up to ISO 800 with little apparent noise.

Apparently at DOP a digital bias just isn't enough. They also have a Canon bias. Nothing is as good as their Canon equipment. And the output from their Canon cameras and lenses are just fabulous. Canon apparently is the standard by which everything else is judged.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never been a fan of Canon's film cameras, preferring Nikon equipment. I am not a fan of Canon's digital equipment either. But that's not to say that the company does not make quality equipment. They do.)

In yet another set of 100% crops comparing the output from a Canon 1DS Mark II camera to the Leica R9 with DMR back, DOP finds that the Canon output is superior. The DMR is a 10 megapixel back, the Canon is a 16 megapixel camera. Despite the fact that the Canon uses a full-frame sensor and the Leica's is a 1.37 crop, DOP notes that they are not that far off. You would expect the Canon to blow the Leica away. According to DOP, it's a close call.

Using a shot of a brick wall, the 100% crop (apparently the 100% crop is an industry standard) from the Canon supposedly provides more detail than the Leica.

"As you can see the 1Ds Mk. II provides quite a bit more detail to work with. In any case we most of the time we would be happy with the DMR resolution."

Actually, I don't. Both photos look identical. I don't see the "quite a bit more detail" that the Canon supposedly provides. Granted, comparing this kind of stuff on a computer monitor is a futile endeavor (pretty ironic considering the digerati love these types of comparisons and use them to bash film every chance they get.) But the supposed clear difference is anything but clear. In fact, it's nonexistent.

That's the problem with the so-called "experts." They usually aren't.

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