Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Do We Expect Too Much From Technology?

I've been following with interest the debut of Canon's latest top-of-the-line digital pro sports and journalism camera, the EOS 1D Mark III. It's the first model to include dual processors, a new 14-bit-depth sensor and offers a quite amazing 10 frames per second shooting rate. Canon has made much of the new auto-focus capabilities, a critical feature for sports shooters in particular who never get a second chance to grab those key shots that keep editors happy and them employed.

That's why this post from the highly-regarded Rob Galbraith was very interesting. Based on extensive real-world usage, he sees the new auto-focus capabilities as a backward step compared to the previous model and this leaves many pros now wondering what's happening over at Canon's Japanese HQ where the company has been on a roll of late.

In the sequences he shows, clearly the nature of the subject constitutes a very difficult test. For example, the sequence of a girl running shows that the main centre AF sensor starts out on a plain black shirt and is constantly crossed by her arm moving up and down as she runs. But let's remember that this is exactly the sort of situation the camera is supposed to be designed for and hence this is what makes the analysis so interesting.

The problem seems to be one of back focussing where the actual plane of maximum clarity is behind where the point of focus in the viewfinder has been placed: in short, the camera is lagging behind. It's therefore worth noting that the arm crossing through the focus point should pull focus forwards, if that's at all the issue, and he anyway counters this by showing the same sequence shot on the older model that yields a much higher number of well focussed shots. (Though I have to say, the differences are hard to see in these web pages so you have to take his word as a professional!)

We all know engineering is a discipline of compromise, and I'm sure that's at play here deep within the bowels of Canon. For example, the faster shooting speed may generate other focus issues not encountered before; up-down sensitivity vs. left-right might now be different; certain lenses may be better at keeping up than others; the whole set-up may be much more sensitive to calibration than before; and who knows what else.

I guess the good news is that cameras these days are no more than computers with a lens on the front so fixing this is probably just a matter of downloading a software update, if indeed there's something here that needs "fixing". Either way, fascinating stuff and I'll continue to monitor this as things develop (sorry for the pun).

(And the answers to your other questions are: "approx $4.5k retail", and "thinking about it, but likely too rich for my needs/abilities".)

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