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Well, PMA 2007 has come and gone, after dozens of pre-conference announcements and a few more during the show. Although PMA is the second most important conference in photography, nothing revolutionary was announced. There were lots of pre-PMA rumors, some founded, some not. Most new digital cameras announced during PMA 2007 were evolution models based on previous generations.

This year, there has been a slight shift in the direction of digital camera evolution. During previous years, the megapixels race dominated digital camera announcements. That race is not over yet, as Sony proved by revealing its compact 12 megapixels Cybershot DSC-W200. However, the race has definitely slowed down, higher resolution is no longer the biggest selling factor for consumers. There are 3 reasons for this:

  1. Technology: To make a higher resolution sensor without increasing its size, and therefore the size and cost of the entire camera, requires costly research and development.
  2. Physics: There is a physical limit to the resolution of light going a lens aperture. The limit is due to a phenomenon called diffraction. In other words, larger sensors will eventually be required to take advantage of high resolution sensors at reasonable apertures.
  3. Need: While professional photographers frequently make very large prints where increased resolutions are necessary, consumers seldom print at such sizes.

I’m certain that if it were not for the first two items, the megapixels race would still be raging. After all, marketing is able to create needs. Specifically, the need to have more megapixels than before.

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The major race this year among consumer digital cameras is the light-sensitivity race. It was started by Fuji two years ago when they launched their Fuji Finepix F10, but nearly everyone is in it now. The trouble with this race is that it is a dirty race where the measure of achievement is very different from the measures of marketing. The F10’s claim to fame was its full-resolution ISO 1600 performance. The Fuji Finepix F30 soon followed with an exceptionally good IS0 3200. Remember, these are not SLRs, these cameras are roughly 1″ thick.

Soon after the Fuji F10 became a success, most manufacturers presented compact digital cameras with high-ISO specifications. This quickly became an important race because it is based on an actual need. There is a tangible benefit to capturing low-noise images at high-ISO. Indoor images, street photography, action shots and parties are all great occasions to use high ISO.

The problem with most compact digital cameras is that they either produce excessively noisy images or excessively soft images at high-ISO. Up to now, only Fuji has demonstrated its capacity to do better. Counting megapixels is easy, so is counting ISO but not all ISO are created equal.

Around PMA 2007, several camera makers pushed the limits of high-ISO by announcing cameras with unbelievably high ISO settings. Particulary, Olympus presented the FE-250 which goes up to ISO 10,000 (yes, ten thousand!) and several models going at least to ISO 3200. Kodak also announced new compact cameras featuring ISO 8,000. This reminds me of when scanners were specified using interpolated DPI, one company had a 99,999 DPI scanner on sale!

Indeed, most cameras this year have ISO 3200 settings. This includes Sony’s ultra-compact Cybershot DSC-T100, its compact 12 megapixels W200, and its flagship Cybershot DSC-H9. Looking at ISO numbers alone, it appears Canon and Panasonic are the most tame makers. New Canon compact cameras like the Powershot A570 IS feature a maximum ISO of 1600. Panasonic, famous for its noisy sensors, has a few ultra-compact cameras with a maximum ISO of 1250.

For more insights on Digital Camera Trends @ PMA 2007, stay tuned for part 2…

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