*This article first appeared in Ride UK (#74) and is reproduced here by kind permission of Ride UK.
The progress of civilisation is based upon one thing above all others, Albert Einstein put it very well when he said that “If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”
In other words one persons progression is based upon the work done by the people who went before, and many of today’s pros can thank the old school-ers for paving the way. I remember watching my first BMX video, it was Agroman and just by watching it we improved. I can remember watching Matt Hoffman double pegging one of his first rails then re-winding it and watching it again and again in slow-motion to help me do my first rail. Cutting out the bullshit, we all know that you can learn from other people’s riding in videos, photos and magazines. And what’s more you can learn from watching your own riding back to see where you went wrong. In short we all like to take pictures and video for a whole range of very good reasons as well as just pure vanity.
With the coming of digital cameras we are now freed from the hassles of taking the film in to be processed only for them to not develop the last shot on the film; put stickers all over them explaining how YOU messed up the photo when the truth is they cant develop a picture; AND charge you a fiver for the privelege.
Now serious photographers will generally tell you that film is the way to go. They used to tell you that digital was worthless, but as the technology improves most are compromising at least a little bit in their critisism. This alone tells you how good they are getting.
So like many other riders I embraced the digital camera some time ago, I fancied the immediacy of seeing my picture straight after I take it and I fancied being able to take short video clips, but digital cameras have one MAJOR problem from a riders point of view. SPEED.
Take a picture with a normal film camera and the shutter opens to let light onto the film straight away. The moment that you pressed the button is the moment that gets photographed.
With a digital camera this is NOT what happens. Now I am not going to try to explain what does happen because frankly I don’t have much idea about it, but suffice to say that you press the button and get a picture of the riders arse from a half second later as they leave the frame. This can be absolutely infuriating, you end up having to press the shutter release as the rider leaves the lip to get a shot of the actual jump or whatever. A lot of this “shutter lag” can be avoided by getting the camera to do some of the work before hand. You can pre-focus and set the exposure etc. by half pressing the shutter button, but still you end up with a significant delay which can still screw up your photo.
If you are in the market for a digital camera then obviously there is a shit load of information on the web, sadly most of it is about taking pictures of bowls of fruit and test-cards. Want to know how distorted a picture of a sheet of paper will look like from 2 feet away? Well it’s your lucky day. Want to know how long after you press the button it will take a picture? You will have to look a lot harder to find out and often you wont find an answer at all..
So seeing as I was in the market for a new digital camera, and seeing as I was going to be doing all the donkey work to find one suitable for taking action shots of BMX, which I guess is what you might well want one for two, I thought I would share the experience in a mini review.
My wish list was for a camera the size of a match-box, that would take absolutely perfect photos, in any conditions, high speed sequences and broadcast quality video with dolby surround sound and cost 20 pence. Obviously I was shit out of luck so I had to look for the closest match that actually existed.
My researches on the web showed that the best I could hope for was a short shutter lag and a sequence mode of 5 frames per second, which is excellent, coupled with 30 frames per second 640 x 480 video clips with sound, Fuji seemed to have the lead. But when I got my hands on the camera I was a little disappointed. It delivered the promised 5 frames per second at full resolution but could only manage it for 5 frames. This is great for shots of jumps and airs to pick the most tweaked but most tricks last more than a single second so you can never capture the whole thing from start to end as a sequence.
The video mode was also very good, but pan quickly and the camera has trouble keeping up with the action without blurring the edges. The ordinary pictures themselves were great but I was still having to make quite an allowance for the ever present shutter lag. My search continued. Recently my attention was drawn to a new range of cameras from Kyocera. Kyocera claim to have cracked the shutter-lag problem with some new technology that they call R-tune. Fuck knows what this is supposed to stand for but frankly who cares, but they claim it will reduce shutter-lag to much the same level as a mechanical film shutter which is about all you could ever hope for.
But that wasn’t all they were claiming, this same R-tune technology allows the camera to take sequences at three and a half frames per second for as long as you like! Let me emphasise that; “FOR AS LONG AS YOU LIKE”!
Or at least as long as you have space on the card. This was what really caught my attention. So I decided to check it out.
There are 3 cameras in the new range from 3 to 5 megapixels, but the dinky little 3 megapixel sl300r is slightly faster at 3.5 frames per second than the bigger 5 megapixel s5r which only does 3 frames per second in it’s sequence mode. Now half a frame per second may not sound like a lot but for most tricks it will make a huge difference. For example a 3 frames per second motor drive on a conventional camera only caught 3 frames for a 22 step rail on a conventional film camera. So that extra little bit of speed is much appreciated, and that’s the one I decided to test.
Not being restricted by the layout of a film cassette digital cameras can be all sorts of weird shapes and lay-outs. With the sl300r, Kyocera have made use of this by hiding all the zoom lens and focusing mechanism inside a weird swiveling body the size of a pack of playing cards. Although this looks like a gimmick it actually works really well and means that there are no exposed moving parts.
So the big question is how well does it work?
Well, over the 4 weeks I had it to test we had mainly rubbish weather and overcast days, so half the pictures were taken indoors and the few outdoor ones at the new Warrington park in very dark overcast conditions.
Unusually for a small digital camera you can adjust nearly everything manually, the iso can be adjusted from 100 up as high as 800 to help in these dark conditions but at the expense of increased grainyness. Aperture can be set manually but only to 2.8 or 7.5. With my previous digital camera, taking a shot of a jump required me to “pre-focus” and set exposure and shutter speed by half pressing the shutter release button while looking at something the right distance away. This often isnt easy and if you don’t like the settings it chooses it’s tough luck. I would have to turn, half press the button then hold it there, wait for the rider then press the button the rest of the way a fraction of a second before the peak of the jump. Then I would have to repeat the same proceedure for the next jump since the setting would be lost.
With the sl300r the manual settings let me sort out the focus and aperture and leave them set, then I just have to halfpress to get the shutterspeed set. With this done the picture really did take the instant I pressed the release. Capturing the peak of an air or the point of maximum extension of a variation is suddenly easy. On this count the R-tune thing definitely seemed to deliver.
In the sequence mode you have all the same adjustments but flash is obviously out of the question because there is no way it could re-charge in time, so the camera automatically disables it. To be honest this is no hardship, the built in flash is pretty weedy anyway.
To test the sequence mode I went to the new Warrington park (which is good but has some problems) and persuaded Mike Taylor to do a few sequence worthy tricks despite the wet weather. Unfortunately the dark overcast day wasn’t ideal but the camera coped very well capturing some excellent sequences at the claimed 3.5 frames per second for a good 5 frames, the limitation after that is how fast the camera can write to its SD memory card, with a fast enough card it should be able to keep this up until the card is full but you need a super fast card which I didn’t have. By the time the camera is actually launched these cards will be available but you will have to be sure to get the right sort.
Video Mode suffered from similar problems, at the higher resolution and 30 frames per second the slow cards couldn’t keep up, but knocking back to 15 frames per second there was no problem. Image quality wasn’t all I could hope for in the video mode but it didn’t seem to suffer as much blurring of fast motion as some others.
Overall I was very impressed, the camera did everything it claimed and took some good photos. With new models coming out seemingly by the week this is the first I have come across that really addresses the needs of BMXers (hence the review). So if you are looking for a small digital still camera to document your exploits I would keep an eye out for the R-Tune cameras….
Since the test I decided to buy the slightly fancier “Contax” version of the camera, a fast card and a wide angle adaptor lens. The Contax version, the SL300R T* has a specially coated lens that seems to improve image quality quite a lot. The sequence mode has really impressed me, averaging 3.75 frames per second at full resolution in my test it really lets you capture some great sequences that no other compact, cheap(ish), camera could…