Canon Optura

I have been using the Canon Optura for the past few days, shooting it along with my still cameras while covering the White House. 

Using it in actual breaking news situations, I was able to give it a fairly demanding test that would reveal what we as photojournalists would experience using the camera. 

There is both Good News and Bad News: 

First, the Good News. The ergonomics of the camera are spectacular. It is smaller than I imagined it would be. It is roughly the size of an A2 with a 50mm lens, if you were to mount the lens on one side of the camera. 

It feels just GREAT. All the controls are right where you would expect them as a still photographer. The shutter release/video on/off button is on the right front, where your index finger would naturally go to. Right below the shutter release is the zoom button, which you activate by moving your middle finger to the left or right. The zoom button is pressure sensitive and is capable of either fast or slow zooms, which it does very smoothly. 

Just above the shutter button is a three position switch to go to either photo, movie or lock. 

A bright color viewfinder, with an adjustable diopter sits atop the camera, and to its right is a 2 inch diagonal LCD viewer which can be used either for tripod viewing or as an editing screen. A button allows you to choose which viewfinder you want to use. 

A dial on the side of the camera allows you to select either automatic shutter-preferred or aperture-preferred shooting. Or you can leave it in manual, in which case you can use the convenient focus and aperture controls, which you can easily find with your left thumb. 

The battery which comes with the camera is a lithium ion, which was giving me about 45 minutes of record time with the excellent optical stabilizer activated. Canon has an optional multiple battery charger which can also be worn on the belt, drawing power from three batteries in sequence. 

The batteries are roughly the size of a Zippo lighter (if anybody remembers what they were). 

The lens is a 14x zoom that can be upped to 35x by use of the digital feature. This would give you a roughly 36-3000mm range. 

If you switch the control to "photo", you can capture an image using either automatic or manual shutter speeds up to 1/2000th of a second, which is then put onto seven seconds of rolling tape. This is most useful for shooting images of buildings, signs, or photographs when you don't want to worry about setting up a tripod but still have a crystal clear and steady shot. 

It would not really be useful for conventional still photography, especially in photo journalism, for two reasons. First, the still resolution is only 350,000 pixels, as opposed to the 1.5 megapixels of a professional digital camera, and more important, because the image is downloaded onto seven seconds of tape, you have to wait for the image to clear before you can shoot another one. 

The audio is excellent. The stereo mike built into the camera is capable of either 12 bit or 16 bit PCM audio (better than a CD). 

There is an auxiliary mic input, which also allows you to use the great little shotgun mic that was originally made for the L2. It can almost rival a sennheisser as a directional mic.. 

There are outputs for both composite audio and S video, as well as a firewire outlet to pump digital direct into a non-linear system. 

All very impressive in a camera that sells for $2,695. 

Now for the Bad news: 

Trying to shoot the camera during a Presidential event with normal television lighting, I discovered that when I looked at my shots from the rear platform where all the other TV cameras were, there was an unacceptable amount of noise or grain in the image. It looked like an ENG camera with an 18db boost. 

Other shots of my colleagues walking through the halls of the Old Executive Office Building were similarly grainy and underexposed. Any old High 8 camera would have been able to handle the light levels with no problem. 

After talking to Canon this afternoon, they fessed up that the RGB filter that is being used for this camera sacrifices a lot of speed. Essentially it gets its picture by upping the lux floor. 

This really threw me. However, after further experimentation, I realized that if you took the camera off automatic, in which the default shutter speed is 1/60th, and set it to TV, you could dial the shutter speed down to 1/30th. The increasing luminesence helped alleviate the grain problem to some degree. 

It's not a perfect broadcast quality picture, but it is close enough to be in the ball park. 

However, the big news is that Canon is already prepared to launch a professional version of this camera at the end of this month. They won't talk about it, but I believe it will be a three chip camera, which would overcome this problem. It will come with many other standard broadcast features such as XLR audio inputs and a bunch of new features that Canon can barely resist chortling about.. 

That is very good news because the thing that comes across loud and clear from showing this camera around the White House Press room is how appealing this camera is to not only still photographers, because it looks and feels like a "regular camera", but to the TV shooters as well, as they contemplate how suddenly they can carry a few of these in their run bag, and clamp them into weird spots so they can do their own cuts using a remote, while holding down a key camera position. 

As I said in my original review [below], Canon has heard us, and are leading the way into new ways of seeing and working in our craft. 

by Dirck Halstead (Edgartown, Mass.   September 3, 1997) 

The surprise announcement this week of the development of their new hybrid still/motion camera the OPTURA, has taken most of the photo industry by complete surprise. Leaving many of the major players in shock. 

Canon has again taken a huge gamble, and decided to follow their own flag in trying to anticipate the market of the future. 

One of the things that I have observed for many years is that Canon has paid great attention to the needs of photo journalists, which is one of the reasons they now have such a substantial market share in our industry, and my guess is that just as in the case of taking the risk of alienating their customers by designing a better auto focus system, this gamble will pay off. 

As we have been talking this past year about the emergence of the Platypus, and as more and more photojournalists have gravitated to the web and realize that without the constraints of time and space, they have found a place to practice the new journalism. 

As newspapers increasingly make more use of their web sites, eventually, the tail will wag the dog, and with the creation of hundreds of new television news channels, many of them owned by the same newspapers, many of us will be spending a lot of our time, energy, and talent creating this new journalism. 

I have not yet held one of these cameras in my hand, but from reading the press release, a few things stand out. 

First, it is truly intended to be a multiple use instrument, aimed in the case at the professional and advanced amateur. It takes full advantage of some key new technology, including progressive scan CCD imaging, which means that one RGB filter can replace three chips to provide broadcast quality imaging. You will see this technology being used in the future on professional ENG cameras, dramatically reducing the cost of these cameras. 

It is photographer-friendly, with controls where we are used to having them, with the release for the shutter/tape in its familiar upper right corner. 

With the use of the IEEE 1394 firewire, it will possible to transfer pictures and video direct to the computer for editing in digital form. 

It is able to use flash . . . a big step forward. 

The 14x zoom, with a 35x digital zoom capability effectively means that the camera has a 35-1300mm f1.8 lens. Supplemental wide angle adapters can be added. 

The most intriguing thing is buried toward the bottom of the press release, that the camera is ready for 16:9 HDTV format. This is a HUGE addition that makes this camera ready for the next generation of digital TV. 

The main drawback as far as I can tell from reading the press release is that its still picture file size still is effectively in the 750,000 pixel range (correct me if I'm wrong, Canon), which limits its effectiveness in print. This still leaves room for the next hybrid which should be able to boost that file size to 4 mega pixels (the same as chrome). 

But the basic concept is brilliant and bold on Canon's part. Ultimately it means that we as photo/video journalists (AKA the Platypus) will only need one small camera to do complete journalism, producing our stories in whichever format seems best. 

At the press center in Martha's Vineyard today I was showing the web site with the rotating image of the camera ( to my colleagues, and a photographer for a Boston paper just shook his head and said . . . "well I think we are going to hold off on buying those six digital cameras, now." 

It could well be the first step in making us all we can be. 

Reviews by Dirck Halstead of new equipment appearing in the Camera Corner of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST are solely the opinion of the author, and do not reflect the opinions of Hewlett Packard. There is no compensation or pressure by the manufacturers considered in the evaluation of the products reviewed on these pages.

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