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The Northern Spy
February 2008

In The Picture -- Part I

Rick Sutcliffe

The product of the month,

and perhaps of the year, is the Canon EOS 40D digital camera. To be sure, this fine piece of the digital geek's lifestyle has been around for several months now, but a confluence of events finally seduced the Spy into the purchase he's intended making for some time now.

One was the increasing age and consequent loss of youthful functionality of his venerable film camera. When he bought the Miranda Sensorex EE back in the early 1970s, it was a state of the art camera, and cost a corresponding two weeks' salary. The company subsequently made an all-too-familiar mistake however, by announcing a replacement product before it was ready to market. By the time the inevitable delays were negotiated, marketshare had collapsed on unfulfilled expectations, and the company that invented the SLR was yet another piece of road kill on the information highway.

How good was this camera? With occasional refurbishing of the lens (which had an oil-on-the-leaves problem) and cleaning of the electrical contacts (subject to corrosion), it performed well for over thirty years, the automatic through-the-lens metering system only then failing, leaving the Spy to hold a finger to the wind before setting speed and f-stop manually.

Unlike other early attempts at automation that were aperture-priority, the Sensorex gave precedence to the speed, which was set first by choice of ISO in film and then by the top speed dial. The camera could then close the aperture to an appropriate stop automatically. The Spy used it to take thousands of pictures, nearly all slides. His shows of candid shots at church dinners became legendary (well, a legend of limited circulation), and his collection of family pictures a priceless record of birth, death, marriage, personal development, and achievement.

But time and technology stand still for no one. Kodak no longer makes slide projectors, trays or film cameras (try eBay), and a once bewildering choice from store walls of film canisters has shrunk to a mere handful hiding shamefacedly on an out-of-the way little rack. Once cameras crossed the 8 megapixel barrier, picture quality became equal to that of 35mm film, and the last technical excuses for switching vanished. The Spy was ready to buy Canon's EOS 20D a couple of years ago, or the improved 30D last year, but a lack of ready funds and a reluctance to be extorted by inflated Canadian prices proved an effective barrier to his wallet.

But an upcoming trip to Ireland offering one inducement, and further improvements for the 40D another, the coup de grace to his resistance was finally delivered by a narrowing of the price gap. When one camera store, albeit somewhat distant in the nether reaches of Vancouver (where he rarely ventures), erased the RO factor by advertising a boxing week sale equivalent to the U.S. street price ($1499 with 17-85mm lens), a copy of the ad presented to the local London Drugs camera counter yielded a matching price, so the Spy fully joined the digital image revolution (he already had a high-end Epson scanner).

Comparable advanced-amateur/semi-pro cameras are offered by Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Sony, and others. However, reviews, discussions with pros and other amateurs, and his own sense of the technical aspects have consistently pointed to Canon as the picture maker of choice. Two years of waiting and watching have merely confirmed the brand selection.

The Canon EOS 40D is situated in a line of cameras all accepting EOS-mount lenses, and occupying a variety of market niches and price points. Below it, and offering comparable image quality in a smaller and simpler package is the Digital Rebel. Above is the new 3D, the 5D, and the pro flagship 1D (mucho loonies). For the Spy's meaty hands, the Rebel feels clumsy and uncomfortable. Too bad, because it also seems like excellent value for the money, and would be the right SLR choice for most people. On the other side, he didn't need to spend an extra $1K or more for a full-format machine (i.e. sensor the same size as a 35mm film frame) and the slightly more robust (but not necessarily better) images offered by, say, the 5D. Hey, the 40D cost relatively less than his old Miranda, and wouldn't disgrace even a pro's kit.

First impressions remain positive. Out of the box, one charges the battery, installs a CF card (separate purchase!), attaches the lens, sets the mode dial to fully automatic, and blazes away. Half press the shutter button for automatic setup and fully press it to shoot. The camera figures out all the settings accordingly, and does so reasonably well. Each image is displayed on the large screen at the rear of the camera for a user-definable number of seconds after being taken, and of course all images on the installed card can be called up for review.

Speaking of lenses, the Spy eschewed Canon's cheapest offering, the 18-55mm plastic lens, in favour of a kit that included the 17-85mm IS (image stabilized) f4.0-5.6 (depending on zoom) lens This isn't a prime or even an "L" lens, but offers a mid-level, fairly decent quality set of glass. The corresponding 75-300mm IS telephoto also appears interesting (maybe later), as do Canon's more professional lenses, but the cheaper ones deserve little interest. If you're going to blow as much bread as this on a camera, don't buy cheap lenses. Sigma and Tamron also make lenses of various qualities for this and other EOS cameras.

But, if he'd wanted a point-and-shoot camera, he could have had one for far fewer loonies than this. So, the top dial's basic zone has several other automatic setting collections for portrait, landscape, closeup, action, shade, and no-flash, situations. Select one of these, and the camera can make better informed decisions about speed, aperture, and ISO.

The creative zone on the same dial permits more manual and correspondingly fewer automatic settings collections. There's a "program" mode, where the automatically selected speed/aperture combination can be altered manually (as a pair). Or, one can specifically choose and manually set one of speed, aperture, or depth-of-field priority, and have the other settings computed automatically. Needless to say, in the more automatic modes, and where appropriate, the built-in flash pops up and does its bit. One can also do multiple shots, bursting up to sixty images in rapid succession. Or, one can go fully manual and set everything, with only assistance from the electronics. Focus can of course be automatic or manual. Did we mention time delayed shots, variable multiple shot firing, red eye adjustment, manual aperture stop down for testing, exposure compensation bracketing, magnification (and histograms) in playback mode, and the ability to select which of the nine focus points to use?

However, that's just the beginning of the 40D's configurability. A collection of settings can be assembled and attached to one of three custom positions on the top dial for repeated use. Standard, portrait, and landscape settings can be applied in the manual mode, and the parameters behind these can be tweaked in a special menu. For this purpose, single buttons allow immediate access to ISO, drive, white point, focus mode, drive mode, picture quality, exposure compensation, and auto focus. Progress in performing some or all of these operations can be viewed variously on the rear, top, or through-the lens info screens (some on all three). The built-in fill flash can be operated manually, automatically, in conjunction with or instead of an auxiliary flash, or turned off altogether. Indeed, nearly every setting the camera has van be changed by the user, if desired.

The camera has a live video mode, and this can be output to a TV screen if desired, though the camera does not record video itself. There are also outputs for direct transfer of images to a computer or printer, though it is just as easy to do this by inserting the card into a suitable reader. Moreover, the bundled software makes this a breeze. Once installed (and after a reboot) it will detect either card or camera mounting and offer to transfer and process images.

It's worth noting that there are often several ways to do the same thing--though one or more direct buttons, or via menus. Moreover, there are three separate finger controls for navigation through menu choices-a top wheel, a dial, and a joy-stick-like universal controller. Figuring out which does what and when can be a challenge, but adds to the appeal of the camera. It can be adapted to a variety of modes for working, and each possible adaptation sells a few more units. Indeed, Canon recently passed the 30 million camera mark in the EOS line, a remarkable achievement. Caution: complexity does come at a price not all Mac enthusiasts will want to pay--you do need to read the manual, several times.

All in all, this appears to be a well-designed, well-put-together, and well-sold product of the first quality. The interface is pretty good for a small screen, easy to read, and logically laid out. The Spy's only caveat--the picture display button is too close to the lower left corner and too easily pressed accidentally. This isn't a hazard, just a slight inconvenience. Other manufacturers could learn from Canon on several score. More on accessories and picture taking next month, but meanwhile the Canon EOS 40D inspires the Spy to proclaim:

The Spy's Ninth Law--On selling wicked-successful products

KISS but LUCE--Keep it simple for starters but let us change everything.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch Department,

As somewhat forecast in this space in recent months, iSteve's Cupertino outfit announced an entry into the shrunken iBook market--this in the form of the MacBook air, a small portable targeted at the 100% wireless crowd. Naturally, to get the ultra-thin format, some things had to be sacrificed, in this case, space for an optical drive, which becomes an optional external accessory.

The product fits iSteve's long history of giving customers what he personally wants in a fairly closed box--witness the original Mac 128, and the first iBooks. More configurable and accessorizable macs have been more successful, however, and this appears to validate the ninth law above. The Spy therefore sees this as iSteve's own niche product--not one that will break any sales records, though useful for some. Meanwhile, stay tuned. Supplies of flash memory are going into something else (grandson of Newton?), though iSteve's recent disparaging remarks about book reading and readers might suggest that something else won't be an eBook device, except perhaps as a third-party afterthought.

'Course, he wouldn't misdirect us, would he? Would he?

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2008 03 04