[REVIEW – SONY HDR-AS50 Action Cam]

PRICE: $299
Tiny and tough

THE LOWDOWN: Sony’s new action cam is small and light – 24x47x83mm and 83g – and fitted with an 18.4mm (film equivalent) f2.8 Zeiss branded lens. The 11 megapixel sensor is back illuminated. Image stabilisation is electronic “SteadyShot”. The camera comes with a detachable waterproof housing that can be used to depths of 60m and this housing also makes the unit dust and shockproof and keeps it working at -10c. Recording is on a Micro SD card and both video and stills can be captured. Video formats include both standard 1080 line high definition and 4K 2160 movies. The camera can be controlled from a smartphone using the Sony Play Memories app for iPhone or Android. Movies can be transferred to a phone for editing using the Sony Action Cam app. Shooting parameters are set using a tiny LCD on the side of the camera, so you’re not going to be making adjustments under water.

LIKE: We shot 4K video with the AS50 and the results are impressive. Our only reservation is the extreme barrel distortion. Smartphone control is brilliant with a viewfinder image on the phone plus some controls of the camera. The exposure compensation control is particularly useful.

DISLIKE: There is not much in the way of attachments in the box. Be prepared to lay out more money for doodads to attach the camera to you bike, hat or helmet.

VERDICT: This is a reasonably priced camera that will serve a diver, skier, cyclist, skate-boarder or sky diver well. Not being a daredevil our testing lacked something of the adventurous spirit but we like what the Sony AS50 did. And it scored the TIPA award for best action cam.

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Right now is not a good time to be a manufacturer of digital cameras. Just ask the chaps in the Samsung camera division.

In March Samsung abandoned the digital camera business just when its new mirrorless NX1 was getting stellar reviews in every market. A good word from the critics didn’t get the cameras moving from the shops.

Perhaps the NX1 was too expensive or too heavy. Or it may have been reluctance to buy into a new system of lenses and accessories. Or perhaps when you get into the over-$2000 it’s safest to buy Canon or Nikon.

At the lower end of the compact camera market Samsung was hurt by the excellence of its own phone cameras, consistently rated at the top for image quality.

The latest camera shipment figures from CIPA (Camera Imaging and Products Association of Japan) show just how precarious the industry is becoming for those at the low end of sales volumes. Total camera shipments for the first half of 2016 are down about 47 per cent. Compact cameras have suffered the biggest decline in sales.

Ten years ago Canon reported that most of their compact sales came from people who already owned a digital camera but wanted the features of the newer models and so traded up. It was usually for more pixels or a longer zoom. Who does that anymore?

The digital camera business is a profligate one with short model life and constant updating and replacing at a pace that we didn’t see in film days. Why don’t they save themselves some R and D expense by extending model life? According to an Olympus Imaging executive, they dare not. The digital imaging technology is constantly improving. The image capturing sensors, image processing engines, auto focusing electronics and mechanics, battery and memory storage are getting better every day and no manufacturer can afford to be left behind.

The most recent sales figures for Olympus imaging show a decline in sales of 25.5%. The company says that there are “…Ongoing moves to shrink the imaging business to a scale more appropriate for a shrinking market…Despite efforts to squeeze expenses, lower sales resulted in an operating loss in the imaging business.”

The figures suggest that the DSLR business will keep Canon and Nikon in reasonable health so all eyes are on Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm to see who is next to follow Samsung out of the market.

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An American visitor to these shores, come for the Adelaide Writers Festival in 1982, wrote: “Adelaide’s beige stone houses with white trim and long verandahs are the most beautiful domestic architecture I have ever seen, at least as nice as Danish farms and Parisian townhouses.” She’s not wrong.

South Australia is indeed a blessed and fortunate state – they missed the twentieth century entirely. There was never any economic incentive to demolish the beautiful and replace it with the vulgar, so not only in the capital but also in country towns the glories of nineteenth century stone architecture is everywhere preserved. Power poles and overhead wires have virtually disappeared and here and there old gas lamps (all right, electric gas lamps) now light the perfectly preserved streets. There is a lot to photograph.

Photographing buildings is a fraught exercise for us OCD types – we get twitchy about converging verticals, that form of perspective distortion that makes building looks as though they are falling backwards. We like our buildings standing up straight with nicely parallel walls. We ask you, is that too much to ask? Even in the olden days in the darkroom we would resort to tilting the paper frame to give as few degrees of vertical correction to the picture.

Fortunately we had chosen to take the Olympus OMD EM1 with us, fitted with the new Panasonic Leica 12mm wide angle lens. The Olympus has an inbuilt keystone correction function, meaning that you can straighten up the converging walls of a building right in the camera. Keystone Compensation is selected in the second menu level and applied with the front wheel. The effect can be seen in the viewfinder and on the LCD. We used it a lot for photographing old buildings of two or more storeys. The only caveat with the Olympus system – also in the EM5 MkII – is that the degree of correction is a tad limited.

When we used the Nexus 5X phone to take photos and to edit them before posting to Instagram we used the Transform tool in Snapseed to straighten the walls. The Vertical Perspective and the Horizontal Perspective correction sub-tools are able to fix most distortions in photos of buildings taken from the footpath with the very wide angle phone lens.

In-camera and Snapseed editing is fine for travelling light with a minimum of gear, but back home there is an even better way of squaring things up. The latest version of Lightroom for CC subscribers incorporates the ultimate in distortion correction.

In Develop mode there is a sub-palette labelled Transform where there are several tools for distortion correction. Using “Guided” the idea is to click on the top of one leaning vertical and then align the line that appears with the edge of the building. Repeat the process with the facing edge and voila! The image changes shape. The process can then be repeated for horizontal corrections.

There are also sliders for vertical and horizontal correction and an Auto button that is a good place to start because it often gets the effect right.

Photoshop has distortion correction functions in the Edit menu, labelled Perspective Warp. This is much harder to use than the new module in Lightroom but once mastered it works well enough. It will probably be replaced in future versions of Photoshop CC with the Lightroom version. And Photoshop also has a perspective correction function in Filter/Lens Correction/Custom/Transform which works when the subject building is arranged symmetrically in the frame but otherwise requires some tidying up in Edit/Transform/Distort or Perspective.

Olympus in-camera and Snapseed crop the image to the original aspect ratio after the correction is applied while Photoshop and Lightroom leave it to the user to crop out the blank areas of the frame.

Some readers may be muttering: “Why bother when you can fit your Nikon or Canon with a tilt-shift lens that will do the job perfectly on the spot?” Not all of us can afford the $2500 price for entry into the world of tilt-shift lenses. Snapseed for Android and iDevices, on the other hand, is free which is a winning argument for most of us.

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Fastidious photographers always travel RAW. The pictures are simply better. But editing RAW image files on the move has not been easy unless you are prepared to lumber yourself with a portable computer. Now Adobe just changed all that with a worthwhile update to the mobile version of Lightroom.

The new Lightroom Mobile app is configured differently for Android and iGadgets.

On an Android phone LRM is restricted to Adobe’s own DNG (digital negative) format, but that still makes the upgrade worthwhile, particularly as it doesn’t cost anything.

The in-app camera in Lightroom captures images in DNG with either automatic or manual control. In other words your Android phone can now take photos like a DSLR. You are no longer a JPEG hostage. The images can be edited in Lightroom with its complete array of functions – crop, straighten, exposure, contrast, saturation, black and white conversion, detail clarity, colour temperature and so on – and directly saved to Google Photos or shared to social media servers.

There is a Widget for the Lightroom camera that opens the camera directly from the Android desktop with the last used settings, auto or manual, RAW or JPEG.

The new Lightroom Mobile for iPhone and iPad is different from the Android version. It will handle RAW files from any camera currently supported in Adobe Camera RAW. There is one caveat, for it to work you need to be an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber. Once you have that in place you can confidently travel with no greater encumbrance than an iPad and an SD card reader to Lightning adapter.

For testing purposes we imported Olympus RAW files (ORF) into the iPad and opened them for editing in Lightroom Mobile. The Local Adjust function is a nice touch allowing for the selection of an area on the image to which tonal and colour editing adjustments can be applied. The area for adjustment can be defined either linearly or radially. Linear selects a straight section across the image that can be enlarged or reduced as a section defined by parallel lines. Radial selection creates a circle/ellipse around a centre point. There is a control point at the apex of the selection outline that controls the degree of feathering.

Androiders are not so fortunate. To edit a RAW image from a camera on an Android phone it must be converted into the DNG format and copied to the Lightroom image folder on the smartphone. That’s too cumbersome to be an option for the tourist travelling light. Furthermore we could not find any way of transferring photos from a camera to the Nexus using an SD card reader, as can be done with an iGadget.

Adobe CC subscribers can sync images edited on portable devices with Lightroom on a desktop computer.

Lightroom Mobile is not as fully featured as either Apple Photos editor or Google’s Snapseed so if you have no interest in RAW file editing then the attractions of the Adobe app are not so obvious. And we have compared JPEGs and RAWs from the Google Nexus 5X and the differences are not pronounced. We expected the in-camera JPEG compression to produce obvious noise reduction detail blurring but we couldn’t see it, even at 300 percent enlargement on a high definition computer monitor.

So LR Mobile is most useful on the iGadgets where it can open and edit RAW files from a camera. On the other hand there is no Lightroom camera with RAW capture for the iPhone as there is for Android.

The Manual Camera app (for Android devices from the Google Playstore) will capture JPEG and RAW simultaneously and has, as the name suggests, manual controls for exposure compensation, white balance and ISO. The RAW files are saved as DNGs and can be edited in Lightroom Mobile and the advantage of this app is that you can choose to edit the DNG if you’re feeling fussy or the JPEG if you’re in a hurry.

The upcoming iOS10 for iPhones 6 and later promises to open up the camera module to third party app developers to create camera apps that can record DNG and JPEG simultaneously. Adobe will probably be quick to take advantage of the new operating system to provide a Lightroom camera for iPhones.

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