Nikon DSLRs prepare for takeoff

Nikon has announced that the Russian Federal Space Agency has ordered three Nikon Digital SLR cameras, four interchangeable lenses, software and various accessories to be used on board the International Space Station (ISS). The equipment will be transported to the space station by the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft, to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 16, 2010. The cameras subject to the order are one Nikon D3S and two Nikon D3X DSLRs. The lenses include the AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR supertelephoto lens.

The D3S, released in late 2009, has a newly designed full-frame, 12 megapixel sensor that features extraordinary low light performance up to 102,400 ISO, continuous shooting of up to nine frames per second and high definition video. The D3S was reviewed by DCR this past April and awarded 4 ½ stars out of 5, with our reviewer stating that it is "probably among the most capable pro DSLRs on the market today." The D3X, released in late 2008, has a full-frame 24 megapixel sensor. We also had the chance to review it earlier this year. DCR contributor Theano Nikitas stated that "the D3x's image quality is stunning." The AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR, released in 2007, is constructed with extra-low dispersion glass elements that minimize chromatic aberration, producing high quality images, an extra-low refractive index coating and a meniscus protective glass element.

The new equipment will be used along with other Nikon SLR cameras and lenses already being used by Russian cosmonauts in the Russian portion of the space station.
The United States also makes use of Nikon equipment in space. In 2009, NASA ordered eleven D3S cameras and seven AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lenses for use in recording activities aboard the space shuttle and the International Space Station.
For additional information, see Nikon's press release.


Panasonic FX75 gets pricing

The Panasonic Lumix FX75, announced last week, gets a price tag today. Panasonic lists the suggested retail price at $299.95. The FX75 will be available in mid-July in either black or silver.

The Lumix FX75's bright f/2.2 lens is the standout feature. It offers a 5x optical zoom range starting at an equivalent 24mm at wide angle. The FX75 also features Panasonic's Venus Engine HD II processor, a 14.1 megapixel sensor and 720p HD video recording.

The introductory pricing of $300 is $50 less than the MSRP for Canon's similar PowerShot SD4000 IS "High Sensitivity" camera. Like the FX75, it features a faster-than-usual lens at wide angle. The SD4000 uses a backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, where the Lumix FX75 uses a CCD chip.


Sony alpha NEX-5 Review

The joint development of the Micro Four Thirds system by Olympus and Panasonic allowed them to be first in the market with mirrorless, interchangeable-lens compact digitals that offer DSLR-like image quality in sub-DSLR size camera bodies. Olympus announced their E-P1 in mid June 2009; Panasonic their GF1 in early September. The partners had this niche to themselves for the rest of 2009 and into the second quarter of 2010, but now there is competition looming.

Samsung has just introduced their NX10 and Sony has thrown their hat into the ring with the recently announced NEX-3 and alpha NEX-5, due in the market this July. Barely a week after the Sony announcement, an NEX-5 found its way to my door. The ink was hardly dry on my review of Samsung's NX10, so the opportunity to shoot the newest entries into the class back-to-back (along with the GF1 back in October 2009) has given me hands-on time with three of the four players in the field.

While Samsung drifted from the rectangular, boxy body shape that characterizes the Olympus and Panasonic cameras, Sony has embraced their concept with a vengeance. The NEX-5 press release calls it (and the NEX-3) the "world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital cameras." Even so, the NEX-5 packs a 14.2 megapixel Sony APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor that results in a 1.5x crop factor (35mm equivalent) for any lenses mounted on the camera. One benefit of that sensor resolution is the ability to crop images fairly aggressively if necessary while still retaining sufficient data for quality photo enlargements. This shot cropped to 8 x 12 inch size still has 228 dots per inch and will produce a good quality print.

Sony will launch the camera with 16mm pancake and 18-55mm zoom lenses available; an 18-200mm zoom is due later in the year. The NEX cameras carry the "Alpha" designation (like the DSLR line), but the NEX lens mount is an "E" mount, not the "A" mount found on the big Sonys. An adaptor for "A" mount lenses is due in July, but will not support autofocus.

The NEX-5 has a 3.0-inch articulating monitor, can shoot 1080i HD video in the AVCHD format and provides automatic and full manual controls as well as JPEG and RAW shooting capabilities. There's face detection, smile shutter technology, Sony's Bionz processor and compatibility with Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Sony provides a compact clip-on flash and flash case with each camera, as well as battery and charger, USB cable, CD-ROM software, shoulder strap, instruction manual and the 16 or 18-55mm lens depending on the kit chosen.

It's small, it's light and it's the newest in this fight - let's see just what the NEX-5 brings to the arena.


Nikon Coolpix S8000 Review

The Nikon S8000 is a very capable and very slim camera. The 10x optical zoom range offers great flexibility, though auto-only shooting may disappoint advanced shooters.

After schlepping around a 35mm kit with two Nikon camera bodies, several lenses, and a full sized Bogen tripod for many years, I've come to appreciate small, easily pocketable cameras like the Nikon Coolpix S8000. When our test unit arrived, I was immediately impressed and after two weeks of carrying the camera with me just about everywhere I went, my initial impressions haven't changed. The little black S8000 (the camera is also available in silver, red and brown) is about the size of an Altoids tin and provides a nice balance of usability, simplicity and snappy performance.

The tiny low-profile S8000 is a first-rate picture maker that's capable of capturing super images indoors and outdoors. The S8000's collapsible 10x zoom is like carrying a 30-300mm lens around in your shirt pocket. It's also quick enough to capture the decisive moment. Here's my bottom line (at the top of the review): if you want a compact digicam that gives up the biggest bang for your camera buck and you don't need some level of manual exposure capability - you really can't do a whole lot better than the S8000 at this point in time.

At first glance the diminutive auto-exposure only S8000 looks pretty much like every other ultra-compact digicam out there. On closer inspection this little unit seems rather elegant. It's unobtrusive, understated (at least the black version) and eminently pocketable. The S8000 is truly compact, measuring 2.3x4.1x1.1 inches and weighing in (with battery and memory media) at just 6.5 ounces.
The robustly built metal-alloy/polycarbonate body has good dust/weather/moisture seals and feels comfortingly solid. Even though the S8000 is very thin and has smooth surfaces, it is fairly stable in the hands thanks to the nicely placed wrist strap and contoured thumb rest.
Not only does the Coolpix S8000 slip easily into a standard shirt pocket or a small purse, but it carries nicely when gripped loosely in the palm of the hand with the wrist strap looped around the right hand. Areas vulnerable to loss/breakage include the plastic cover of the battery and memory media compartment (which must be locked/unlocked via a tiny slider by the user) and the soft plastic flap over the USB port.
Ergonomics and Controls
The S8000's user interface is uncomplicated and straightforward. The control layout is quite basic and sufficiently similar to other current digicams in the compact ultrazoom class to provide most users with a comforting sense of déjà vu. Buttons are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters, but they are all rather small. The super tiny on/off button sometimes requires an extra push or two to power the camera up or down.
The S8000's user interface is logical and uncomplicated; all buttons are fairly small, but they are clearly marked, sensibly placed and easily accessed. Operation is very basic and all exposure options are minor variations on the auto exposure theme. There is no mode dial because shooters only have four options - Auto mode, Scene mode, Smart Portrait, and Movie mode. In place of the standard compass switch, the S8000 features what is essentially a rotary jog dial (which Nikon calls the rotary multi-controller) for super fast menu scrolling and back and forth saved image comparison.
The central portion of the rotary multi-controller functions in the familiar compass switch control configuration - up/down (flash/macro), left/right (self timer/exposure compensation), and center "OK" button. Unfortunately there is no direct access method, like Canon's "func" button for adjusting ISO and White Balance or other often changed settings; any adjustments must be accomplished via menu. There's also a dedicated "one-touch" button for starting and stopping video capture.
Menus and Modes
The S8000's two tab menu system is consistently simple, user-friendly, logical and easily navigated. The large 3.0-inch LCD and reasonable font size make reading the menus easy.

Here's a breakdown of the S8000's shooting modes:

  • Auto: Point-and-shoot mode with limited user input. In Auto mode (which is actually closer to Program mode) the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed, but allows users to control sensitivity (ISO), white balance, color/saturation, and exposure compensation.
  • Scene mode: Scene Auto Selector (which automatically selects the most appropriate Scene mode for the shooting situation), Portrait, Landscape, Night Portrait, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Night Landscape, Close-Up, Food, Museum, Fireworks Show, Copy, Backlight, and Panorama Assist. 
  • Smart Portrait mode: Specialized portrait mode that automatically turns on the Skin Softening function to smooth out skin texture and minimize blemishes. The Smart Portrait mode also activates the Smile timer (tripping the shutter when the priority subject smiles), Nikon's Blink Proof function which automatically captures two sequential exposures and then saves the one in which the subject's eyes are open, and Subject Tracking in which the camera locks focus on and automatically tracks the movement of the primary subject to assure sharp focus and rapid response when the "decisive moment" occurs. Subject Tracking continues to function even if the subject briefly exits the frame. 
  • Movie: The camera records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1280x720 at 30 fps) with stereo sound.
Like most currently available digicams the S8000 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder so the LCD must be used for all framing and composition, image review and menu access chores. The S8000 may lack an optical viewfinder, but makes up for this omission by adding a large screen with what amounts to four times the 230k resolution of some of its competition. The S8000's wide-viewing angle Clear Color 3.0-inch TFT LCD is super sharp (920,000 pixels), bright, hue accurate and fluid.
The info display provides all the information the camera's target audience is likely to need, but in review mode this information remains on the screen for approximately five seconds before allowing the image to be seen without the info overlay - defeating the nifty rotary jog dial's ability to compare saved images by jogging back and forth between them. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and can be adjusted to the individual shooter's preferences. Some earlier "S" models featured LCDs that were so shiny that they behaved like mirrors, making them essentially useless in bright outdoor lighting - the S8000 shows marked improvement over its predecessors with a very good anti-glare/anti-reflection coating.