Best Of Show
Our Reporters Make Their Top Picks

Just as when you send out five photographers to the same spot and they all come back with a different picture, our editors came away from the big PMA Show with one or two (or a few) products that caught their eye. Their choices reflect their professional interest, how the product might help make their craft easier or more interesting, and what they thought just might change the course of how we all capture, share, and print our images. Given that all of them saw thousands of products over the course of four days, these products just might pique your interest as well.

Konica Minolta's Maxxum 7 Digital
Although I was covering lenses and conventional cameras during PMA 2004, I could not resist checking out the hot new digital equipment and prototypes. The most significant in my view are the Maxxum 7 Digital with in camera image stabilizer and Leica's 10-megapixel back (Digital-Modul-R) for converting their 35mm SLRs to digital capture. Although neither of these products will be on the market until photokina in October (at the earliest), both deserve my vote as Best of Show for brilliant engineering.

Put a gun to my head and force me to select just one, and I'd choose the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7 Digital, a full-featured, 6-megapixel camera with an anti-shake system that will stabilize any lens in the entire Maxxum system. After testing several Canon IS and Nikon VR lenses with built-in optical stabilizers, I'm a strong proponent of that technology because it allows me to make sharper images. Whether an in camera CCD shift system will be as effective remains to be seen, but Konica Minolta is certainly on the right track. "Why didn't someone think of this before?" I wondered during the company's press conference. (The same question occurred to me when I first heard about the Leica digital back for their 35mm SLR cameras, including the R8 that was developed six years ago. Now that is evidence of foresight!)

I suppose other manufacturers must have considered a body-integral anti-shake system. After all, it's available in a few compact digital cameras, although most models still employ an optical stabilizer in the lens. Presumably there's a technical hurdle to overcome, as in, "How do you build a single system that will be effective with all lenses from a compact zoom lens to a massive 600mm f/4 telephoto?" Konica Minolta has been secretive about that and about other technical issues, but the company has a proven track record for delivering on their promises. So as an optimist, I'll assume that the Maxxum 7 Digital will prove to be successful and hope that other manufacturers will also adopt the useful body integral anti-shake technology.
--Peter K. Burian

Leica's Digital-Modul-R Camera Back
The day before leaving for PMA, a big Newfie won Best in Show at the 128th annual Westminster Kennel Club show in New York. Here at the annual PMA Show "Best in Breed" was hard to spot, but the Leica Digital-Modul-R camera back for R8 and R9 35mm film SLRs clearly demonstrates that digital photography is as much a part of photography as anything else. This digitized Leica SLR offers you the choice of black and white, color, or digital. Sure, part of this works because the R8 body is bigger than most medium format cameras (like the Nikon F5 went to Jenny Craig...) but when mated to the digital back it feels right, like it belongs. This comes from a company whose middle name is photography and who has produced legendary optics, many of which fit this very camera family. For all these reasons, the Leica Digital-Modul-R camera back is clearly my personal Best in Show.
--Joe Farace

A Digital SLR, Battery Tester, And ColorChecker Targets
My three Best of Show picks include a technologically innovative digital SLR, along with two inexpensive items that are of important and practical use.
The digital SLR, exhibited in prototype form behind glass, is the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7 Digital. The model designation is tentative, and the final product will be introduced at photokina this fall. Anti-shake technology is the camera's claim to fame, but the anti-shake mechanism is built into the body rather than into each lens (this feature is available now in the Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2, an 8-megapixel SLR with non-interchangeable zoom lens and electronic viewfinder). This allows all existing Minolta AF lenses
(A-mount) to benefit from the anti-shake CCD Shift.

The compact body houses an APS C-sized, 6-megapixel CCD and advanced image processing, and appears to have a user-friendly control scheme (e.g., current 35mm SLR users should feel right at home). The Maxxum 7 Digital should appeal to advanced amateurs/prosumers longing for an innovative digital SLR with fully interchangeable lenses, but not the expense, bulk, weight, and deep technical involvement associated with a full-fledged "battle brick" pro model. Minolta 35mm SLR owners have been patiently waiting for the opportunity to go digital while remaining in the Minolta camp. That opportunity will soon be at hand, with Konica Minolta promising additional digital SLR bodies and accessories. I hope that will extend to a digital makeover of the Maxxum 9, which would be a killer pro contender.

Modern cameras, digital models especially, are voracious consumers of battery power. That's why a competent battery tester is a practical necessity rather than a luxury. The ZTS Mini-MBT tester is a $29.50 insurance policy that tests batteries under a highly accurate pulse load. Following the fully-automatic timed test cycle, remaining battery capacity is displayed on an LED bar. Battery types are clearly labeled next to the appropriate contacts. The 4x2.5x0.75 unit takes up little space in a camera bag and is totally solid-state, with no delicate galvanometer to knock out of whack. Batteries accommodated include: 1.2v Ni-MH; NiCd rechargeable AAA, AA, C, D; 1.5v alkaline AAA, AA, C, D, N; 3v photo lithium CR123, CR2, CRV3; 9v alkaline and zinc carbon. ZTS is a manufacturer of highly sophisticated test equipment for the camera repair industry, and the Mini-MBT is a small field version of their large bench-model battery testers.

Last, but not least, are a pair of ColorChecker targets from GretagMacbeth, makers of the industry standard 24-patch ColorChecker that's aided professional film, print, video, and scanner color balancing since 1976. The new ColorChecker White Balance card allows digital photographers to accurately adjust their camera's color response to ambient or studio lighting conditions, ensuring that the raw image is as close to real life as possible. A new ColorChecker three-step Gray Scale target, benefiting digital studio photographers, simplifies balancing the main-to-fill light ratios by offering specific check points within a single target. If used as a reference in the first frame of an ambient light series, subsequent images can be quickly corrected by balancing on the mid-tone gray value.

The white, 18 percent gray, and black reference values are also an aid to color control within many photo processing software packages. While many novice digital photographers think any color related image deficiency can be easily corrected post-shoot, experience soon teaches that it's better to expend the minimal effort required to get it right up front, before squeezing the shutter release.
--Dave Howard

Analyzer And Fixer Software
My choice for PMA 2004 Best of Show are DO Labs new products, DxO Analyzer and its potentially revolutionary companion DxO Optics Pro.
DxO Analyzer is an objective way of measuring and quantifying the resolution and performance of camera systems. Utilizing a precision-etched sheet of glass as a photographic target, it uses an impartial computer program to analyze the variations created by the optical, physical, and electronic systems of a modern digital camera.

However, it is the DxO Optics Pro software that might well shake up the digital camera world. Just as NASA scientists were able to correct the flawed Hubble telescope's optics with precise electronic post-processing of its images, so does the DxO Optics Pro correct flaws in the images produced by the digital cameras that you and I use every day. Utilizing the data derived from the DxO Analyzer, corrections can be automatically applied for spherical aberrations such as pincushion and barrel distortion, as well as chronic errors such as color fringing. Even resolution appears to be enhanced, although I have yet to understand exactly how.

A system like this has the potential to give users much higher quality from their existing equipment, delaying the need for expensive upgrades. It could even allow system designers to give us much wider angle lenses for our small digital cameras, releasing manufacturers from the near impossibility of creating well-corrected optics at the incredibly short focal lengths required by today's tiny image sensors.
--Chris Maher

Kodak Kiosk
Kodak's Picture Maker G3 Film Processing Station is a self-service kiosk which permits customers to quickly develop and print photo quality prints in mere minutes from exposed rolls of standard 35mm color negative films. Based on the Applied Science Fiction rapid film processing technology Kodak acquired last year, this unit, when attached to a Kodak G3 kiosk, enables consumers to insert the 35mm film for processing, and then print both film and digital images themselves. The film image is retrieved without wet processing the 35mm film, then the digital images can be previewed so the user can select the images wanted, zoom and crop, eliminate redeye, adjust colors, and finally print the desired quantity of 4x6, 5x7, or 8x10 prints. Soon, an index print and a Kodak Picture CD with all the digitized images are delivered. The roll of film is discarded.
--Robert E. Mayer

Finally A Quick, Efficient Way To Get The Red Out
Redeye has been the bane of flash photography since on-camera flash was introduced. We've all experienced it, and it's not a welcome sight, except perhaps on Halloween. Redeye-reduction mode in the camera is rarely a practical solution. Fortunately, digital imaging software has provided remedies, but more on a conscious level--it is up to us to first identify the problem areas. Cameras are increasingly providing the means to instantly share pictures with prints and e-mail, bypassing the computer, but who wants to share pictures of red-eyed people? Not me. Wouldn't it be great if the camera could take care of the problem right there and then?

So when I heard that Pixology had teamed up with Texas Instruments to embed their redeye-removal software on a Texas Instruments chip, I was thrilled. It would be a couple of days before I actually got to see a live demo (albeit on a laptop, not in camera) of the Pixology solution, but I couldn't wait. And then I'd learned that both Nikon and HP had already installed their own proprietary solutions--in select digital cameras--so I knew I was in for a treat. Nikon, I'd learned, had a software solution already in place in "NikonView 6," using Pixology technology, which was also true of Canon, in "Easy-PhotoPrint Plus," except that the Canon software ships with printers, not cameras.

What Nikon showed held promise, but soon led to disappointment as I learned that you first had to invoke redeye-reduction mode for the camera to invoke the redeye removal algorithms. (Pixology's? They wouldn't say.) The solution appeared effective, but time-consuming. Which resulted in losing my vote for a Best of Show for this camera. Still, I had to give them an "A" for effort. (See the new Nikon Coolpix 5200 and 4200 and judge for yourself.)

The next day I met with HP. They took the Texas Instruments chip and embedded their own proprietary technologies in the new HP R707, technologies that went well beyond redeye correction. Not only did the camera offer a more reasonable approach to the redeye conundrum, but this machine added other innovative HP remedial solutions as well. But the real plus is that redeye removal did not require that the camera be used in redeye-reduction mode, or in any special mode. The correction is made post-capture and in camera, so, upon playback, you can choose to remove redeye or not. So, the HP R707 digital camera is my first pick for Best of Show.

The final day of the show I met with Pixology's founder and director, Nigel Biggs. He showed me how the software could remove redeye--even if only one eye alone was affected, if the person was wearing red, if other people were wearing red, and even when a person with red eyes was surrounded by holiday lights, with red in the mix--or if the person was wearing tinted glasses. Upon enlargement, the eyes looked normal, even in the periphery around the pupil--at least as I recall it. The technology also corrects flare in the eyes resulting from flash, and restores catchlights for livelier expressions. Based on that demonstration and the promise of things to come, I had to give Pixology a Best of Show as well.

One caveat: Animal lovers will have to wait for a solution to green/yellow eyes with flash. The focus is on people first, green-eyed monsters later.

Biggs did offer this closing observation: "Of course with digital, the really good (in camera) implementations will put the information used in the corrections in the JPEG metadata," so that you could restore the original image later on, if necessary. He added that we should expect "to see a lot more of this" at next year's PMA, further noting: "I've talked with people who say that the eventual solution for redeye will be a bit like Dolby noise reduction in audio: It will just be everywhere."
--Jack Neubart

Digital SLRs Have Changed The Game
With hundreds of new products making their debut at PMA it can be difficult to pick one or two that qualify for Best of Show. My choice was colored more by the implications of a product category than by the seduction of a particular product, no matter how gee-whiz it might seem. That's why my pick is a class of products--the digital SLRs that made their debut at the show. Now that technology has caught up to expectations there's little doubt that digital SLRs rival film SLRs in terms of features. True, there's nothing like a chrome or black and white negative, but we've really come to the point of making our SLR decision on workflow, business, or aptitude rather than final image quality. And, with some of these new SLRs, we might soon come to the point of making the same coin flip when deciding between these cameras and medium format film cameras as well. In short, the digital SLR has changed the rules of the game. It has engendered a new confidence in digital, brought about a whole new raft of lenses, and has made working with raw images in the digital darkroom akin to processing film negatives in terms of individual image taste and preferences.

Included in my roster are those that made it to the show and those that are soon to come down the pike. Top billing for this show has to go to the Canon EOS-1D Mark II camera, which has an 8.2 million pixel CMOS sensor, faster DIGIC II imaging engine, and the ability to capture 8-megapixel JPEG images at 8.5 fps in continuous bursts of up to 40 frames and raw images in continuous bursts of up to 20 frames. This camera seems ready made for the sports photojournalist, with construction to back-up the high-speed capture. The camera's exterior and chassis are constructed of weather-resistant magnesium alloy, with more than 70 gaskets and seals, and the camera's lens mount is made of stainless steel. While the field appeal of the camera seems great, Canon is actually positioning this camera as also being the new tool for portrait and wedding photographers. We'll have to wait and see if that 8+ megapixel chip can do the job, although seeing our own Monte Zucker's live shooting sessions with the camera convinced us that it's up to the task. Going for around $4500, the Mark II is a pro or well-heeled amateur only choice, but if price is no object this is surely a tempting item.

Nikon's answer to the Digital Rebel was loud and strong with their D70 digital SLR, although in fairness it was introduced prior to this show. This 6.1-effective megapixel digital SLR camera breaks the magical $1000 price barrier (albeit without lens). Nikon's new Dynamic Buffer technology allows the D70 to continuously take up to 144 pictures at a speed of three pictures per second when using JPEG Normal-Large image settings and a SanDisk 256MB Ultra II CompactFlash card. Additional features such as exclusive new Digital Vari Program modes, simultaneous compressed NEF (raw) and JPEG writing capabilities, and new i-TTL flash compatibility with sync speed of 1/500 sec make the D70 a great choice for those new to digital SLRs and especially for those with a good selection of Nikon glass already in their bag.

Other digital SLRs worthy of mention include the Pentax *istD (announced well before the show), Kodak's revised 14n, Fuji's S3 (more to come on this at photokina this fall), and Leica's digital back for the R-series SLR.

Perhaps the most anticipated digital SLR announcement was from Minolta (now Konica Minolta) that confirmed plans to unveil a digital SLR in the fall that would be compatible with past Maxxum lenses. That's good news for Minolta camera owners who might have been tempted to go another route for their digital SLR kicks. No pricing and only some specs were available at press time.
--George Schaub

Too Hard To Pick Just One
Picking the top products of a show is always challenging. Keep in mind that my picks are based on specifications, quick looks, and my expectations about how the product will affect the user, and none of them have been field tested.
DO Labs' DxO Optics Pro is a new software solution that corrects for defects in the optical and digital camera system handling blur, vignetting, distortion, and chromatic aberration. As these errors depend on many parameters (focal length, distance, lens used, camera) DO Labs face a huge amount of work to provide the right data. Then there are also variations depending on the individual lens/camera used. DxO Optics Pro is the first of its kind, but I think that we will see more of this type of software in the coming years.

The Canon EOS-1D Mark II was long awaited, but probably still came as a shock to the competition. At 8.5 fps it presents a real challenge to its only competitor, the Nikon D2H. I have no doubt that the image quality will be excellent.

The Canon 70-300mm DO IS lens can be an excellent ultra-compact travel lens if the image quality is up to what Canon promises.

The Phase One P 20/25 medium format back was only as a prototype at PMA. But with Phase One's stellar reputation we expect this to be a dream come true for all photographers using medium format.

The Konica Minolta DiMAGE A2 is a digicam that does not look like a "me too" 8-megapixel camera. The A2 includes a stabilized sensor, useable raw support, and a record 900,000 pixel electronic viewfinder. We also like the swivel viewfinder.

The Leica Digilux 2 is a nice, no-nonsense camera.
--Uwe Steinmueller