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2010.09.27

These are exciting times for digital cameras. Starting roughly 2 years ago, cameras started to distinguish themselves in more ways than simply megapixels and optical zoom. We’ve now have DSLRs with Live View and Video capabilities. We have small cameras which use high-speed CMOS sensors and shoot faster than 10 FPS at full-resolution and up to 1000 FPS for low-resolution video. Surely megapixels and optical zoom are growing too, with up to 35X being offered by the Canon Powershot SX30 IS. Optical zoom and megapixels remain the competitive benchmarks because they are so easy to compare, but we have come to a point where very few people simply as for more zoom or more megapixels.

Small cameras, now grouping ultra-compacts and their larger fixed-lens siblings are advancing to improve their two greater weaknesses, speed and image quality. These advancements have been rather slow because of the rush to pack more megapixels. Having more megapixels means more data and larger files, so electronics have to pick up the pace just as fast to process the increased data rate. Even high-speed CMOS cameras tend to choke after a few seconds of shooting and the speed of other functions such as autofocus and zooming is largely unchanged. Advances in high-ISO have also been glacially slow due to increased megapixels. For this reason, Canon and Nikon have both reduced the resolutions of their flagship fixed-lens cameras in recent iterations. Honestly, it would be very interesting to see what a camera with only 6 MP could do with the latest sensor technology. Sadly, most marketing departments would probably disapprove of such product.

These advances have to continue until they reach the point where most people won’t care about improvements. There will always be some people who do which will drive further improvements but once the good enough point is reached for the average snapshot users. Once that is reached we will see even more diversity of innovations. Not all manufacturers will move at once. For example, Fuji really worked on high-ISO performance for years until they started going after dynamic-range. Most other companies are using BSI-CMOS sensor now to help with high-ISO but Fuji is the only one to feature special sensors to capture more dynamic range in a single shot. A number of software improvements such as Sony’s DRO or Nikon’s Adaptive Lighting take aim at the same problem as well.

The cost of introducing new digital cameras may be high but so are the potential gains. So, manufacturers often try out radically new feature in one or two models to see which ones stick. Sometimes, it also takes a few iterations to bring a new feature to the point where it sticks and becomes in demand. The best example is Live-View. How many people absolutely wanted live-view when Fuji introduced their DSLR with a black-and-white live-view that stops after 30 seconds and has to be turned off before  shooting? Now, many studio and macro photographers use live-view for work daily. We have a couple of novelties around now: integrated GPS, built-in location databases, projectors, sweeping panoramas, touch-screens and a few more, waiting to take life or die away.

Stay tuned for Part 2 when I’ll discuss interchangeable cameras (ILC) which are gaining ground on both DSLRs and compact-cameras. That evolution is just starting!

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