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State of the Union: Digital Cameras

Canon G1x

Overview

Minolta-Dimage-X

My First Digital Camera Was A Beast!

My first digital camera was a Minolta DiMAGE X. It was a Hanukkah/Christmas present back in 2002. That little Minolta had a 2-megapixel sensor, 3x optical zoom and a pixilated LCD screen with dimensions that rivaled a postage stamp. Although severely under-specced, the DiMAGE X succeeded in capturing impressive images and was surprisingly fast. One day, its wafer-thin battery bit the dust and I could not find any replacements. Now the mighty little DiMAGE X is buried in a pyramid of camera equipment in my closet—a fossil to be unearthed someday by a nostalgic explorer, questing to uncover the secrets of the incipience of consumer digital imaging.

Today, the digital camera is an entirely different animal. Its target photographers have been categorized and subdivided to an almost baffling degree. Although we, as consumers, are granted with more choices than ever before when it comes to picking the ultimate digital camera, we never settle on the “perfect camera” because the “perfect camera” does not exist. When it comes to digital cameras, we usually have to settle for the “best fit.” Just ask Noah Kravitz. He’s been harassing me for months now with his crusade to find the “perfect camera.” He wants a compact body with a vari-angle LCD so he can marvel at his divine likeness. But Noah also wants great still image quality and an equally impressive video mode accompanied by a mic jack. Oh, and a price that falls under $500.

My first inclination was the new Canon PowerShot G1 X, but it’s $800. The price will come down over time, but the G1 X still lacks a mic jack. Next in line is the Nikon Coolpix P7100, but that camera’s smaller sensor is not the best low light performer when compared to more advanced models with larger sensors. I thought about a camcorder for Noah, but even the Canon Vixia HF G10 is incapable of matching a good point-and-shoot when it comes to still image quality. At the moment, there is no camera that fits Noah’s criteria. We have to wait. And that’s why I’m writing this State of the Union Address. Let’s talk about what we’re waiting for.

Digital Cameras vs. Camcorders

Sony-DCR-TRV140

My First Camcorder Was Bigger Than My Car!

Digital cameras and Camcorders used to be parted like the Red Sea. My first camcorder was a $500 Sony Hi-8 cinderblock that recorded to those proprietary tapes. This was 2001, when Hi-8 and MiniDV were the hot formats. So, the DiMAGE X tackled the stills while the HandyCam took care of the short films. As time progressed, and I snagged my first job at a camcorder review site by using my B.A. in Theater Studies to BS my way through the interview, camcorders began dabbling with still image modes. At the other end of the spectrum, digital cameras began experimenting with video modes. Granted, camcorders were only capable of snapping low-resolution images and interpolating them to make them seem larger, which was a mega marketing tactic. Digital cameras could only record in QVGA or VGA resolutions with limited framerates. Regardless, we never took these features seriously because of their limited capabilities.

Canon-EOS-5D-Mark-II

The Future Of Video

It’s dumbfounding what a half of a decade can achieve. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a digital camera that doesn’t record HD video. Manufacturers have vastly improved video technology on the small scale with point-and-shoots, but it’s mainly DSLRs that are garnering the spotlight. Look at the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. That thing blew many camcorders away and has been used in films and commercials. Most of our CES coverage was shot with a Canon EOS 60D with Rode Stereo VideoMic attached. The future of consumer video, as it stands right now, is the DSLR. Camcorders are dwindling like kindling in a campfire while more and more consumers turn to digital cameras for their picture and video needs. For prosumers and professionals, DSLRs are far more portable than over-the-shoulder camcorder rigs. For consumers, point-and-shoot cameras are easy to use and easier to lug around than a camcorder.

So, in the digital camera vs. camcorder race, the digital camera is in the lead by quite a few car lengths.

Digital Cameras vs. Smartphones

Camera-Fighter-II

Although consumer digital cameras have triumphed over camcorders in most aspects, a new battle has emerged within the past few years. It seems as though the smartphone has been putting everyone out of business, or at least chomping a good portion of the respective profits. The MP3 player, the address book, the calculator, the watch, the portable gaming system, soon the wallet and of course digital cameras have suffered the throes of the omnipotent smartphone market. The reasons are simple.

  • A smartphone is highly portable and with its owner all day and night for instant access.
  • A smartphone can easily be augmented via applications.
  • A smartphone offers its owner the ability to share pictures and videos instantly via Facebook, Twitter and other media sharing sites.

These three reasons are why smartphones are more popular than traditional point-and-shoot cameras at this point in time. However, and this is something I’ve preached many times on TechnoBuffalo, smartphones can never replace the feel and performance of a quality digital imaging device. As an experienced photographer, I hate shooting with a smartphone because it’s so difficult to steady. I miss the tactile buttons and controls. The vari-angle LCD. The gaggle of manual controls, depth of field control and top-notch image quality—I could go on. Although smartphones like the Nokia N8 and iPhone 4S offer some top-notch image quality that rivals certain point-and-shoots, they will never suit the true photographer because they are so architecturally limited.

The Rise of the Smart Digital Camera

Polaroid-SC1630-Smart-Camera

However, there is a whole new type of digital camera on the rise. I’ll call it the Smart Digital Camera. Look at one of the biggest announcements at CES 2012: the Polaroid SC1630. This is a super compact digital camera powered by Android, and an example of what I’ve been predicting for a few years now. The Polaroid SC1630 has a 16-megapixel sensor, 3x optical zoom lens and 3.2-inch capacitive touch-screen display. The camera also offers WiFi and runs an Android OS for access to endless photography applications. This is where the future of digital imaging is headed. This is the first example of digital imaging hardware that fully embraces the smart OS platform. There’s a dedicated shutter button, zoom control and built-in flash, but all action is entirely touchscreen-oriented in back. It’s like a Sony CyberShot with Android, only shaped more like a phone.

And there we have it, folks. The camera that doubles as a phone as opposed to the phone that doubles as a camera, which is what we’ve seen up until this point. I like to use the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play as an example. It was the first phone with built-in game controls for the hardcore mobile gamer. I’ve said that a truly versatile camera phone needs to be built as a digital camera from the outside and a phone on the inside. Get ready for a wild ride within the next few years as both markets collide.

Hardware    

Megapixels, megapixels, megapixels. Zooms, zooms, zooms. LCDs LCDs LCDs. To this day, the three main specs that have been used to sell digital cameras 10 years ago are still just as popular today. However, we as consumers have gotten smarter. It’s common knowledge now that megapixels do not equate to image quality. That’s just absurd. Megapixels refer to the size of the image, not the quality. Image quality has to do with the sensor, lens and image processing. That’s why the megapixel counts on cameras keep fluctuating, usually between the 10-16-megapixel zone. As more and more consumers become privy to the megapixel conspiracy, camera manufacturers have been forced to tackle low light performance as one of the prime selling points. This is achieved a few different ways.

Sensors

First, there’s backside-illumination. By placing the circuitry on the outside of the sensor and filing it down, more light is able to hit the sensor, resulting in better low light sensitivity. Sony and Samsung feature backside-illuminated sensors in many of their cameras. Then there’s sensor size. Most of us know that the smaller the sensor, the less light-gathering abilities the camera has. So, an entry-level point-and-shoot camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor is no match for a low-light chomping DSLR like the full-frame Nikon D700, which has a 35mm sensor. Even mid-level DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors are kicking booty when the lights go down. But that excludes the point-and-shoot crowd, doesn’t it?

Not anymore. For years, I’ve been reviewing advanced point-and-shoots like the Canon PowerShot G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7100 and begging the manufacturers to stuff a larger sensor inside. Finally, in the year 2012, Canon listened. They released the Canon PowerShot G1 X—the first fixed-lens point-and-shoot to feature a 1.5-inch CMOS sensor, which is almost the size of a mid-level APS-C DSLR sensor. This is a landmark because Canon has set the new standard. The advanced point-and-shoot market is no longer going to be plagued by models with smaller 1/1.7-inch chips. Canon has upped the ante, and the competition has no choice but to follow. Within recent years, we’ve also seen faster lenses—f/2.0 apertures like on the Canon PowerShot S100, f/1.8 apertures on the Olympus XZ-1. Fujifilm’s new X-Pro1 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera has an f/1.4 lens lined up for it. Fast base apertures aid low light shooting and are going to continue to soar in popularity.

Zooms

Canon-PowerShot-SX40-HS-Zoom

Then there’s the zoom conundrum. We’ve seen this on camcorders over the years—that 60x optical zoom that allows the shooter to enter the apartment of the neighbor down the block. With digital cameras, we’ve been stagnating within the 24x (Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150) and 35x (Canon PowerShot SX40 HS) optical range. Big zooms are exceedingly popular because they are so versatile. The trick is image stabilization. A good image stabilization system is necessary in order to quell jitter at telephoto focal lengths. Image stabilization technology will need to improve over time, and we’ll begin to see more optical systems compared to sensor-shift systems because optical is far more effective and does not sacrifice pixels. Zooms will increase over time—we should see the first 40x optical zoom or higher later this year, but if you plan on buying a super zoom, make sure it’s got optical image stabilization.

LCDs

Nikon-D5100-Vari-angle-LCD

And finally, LCDs. It took long enough, but we’re finally beginning to attain high-resolution monitors. For a while, manufacturers were floundering in pixilated 230,000-dot displays, then the 460,000-dot era settled for a while. But now, the 460,000-pixel jaunt is coming to an end as we begin to see 920,000-pixel displays in top models and soon, you guessed it, we will be dabbling with 1,000,000+ LCD resolutions. Then there’s the flip-out vari-angle LCD, which is the most important feature on a digital camera according to Noah Kravitz. Canon, Nikon and Panasonic are the only manufacturers dabbling with LCDs that fold out and spin for self documentation. Most other brands offer fixed LCDs or limiting hinged LCDs that cannot flip out. This is an example of how tortoise-like the digital camera industry can be at times. Slow progress enables manufacturers to gradually increase specs over the years to create more selling points for consumers, and LCDs and zooms belong in that category. But, like megapixels, both features may plateau.

Outlook

Because the digital camera has been pulled in so many different directions within recent years, the “perfect camera” does not exist. Mirrorless cameras like Sony’s NEX series and Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds PENs are great because they’re portable and offer impressive image quality. But their cropless lenses are proprietary, rendering them a long-term investment. Even if you dust off your old lenses, your images will be cropped if you use them on a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras with APS-C sized sensors make the most sense, given their compatibility with most mid-level DSLRs. But then why not get a DSLR? Point-and-shoots are being gobbled up by smartphones. Advanced point-and-shoots are finally getting a clue in 2012, thanks to the Canon PowerShot G1 X and its giant sensor. But the G1 X lacks a mic jack for videos retails for the same price as a decent entry-level DSLR. DSLRs are still the reigning champions, but how does one choose in this crowded market?

As a camera specialist, I battle these questions every day. My best advice is to really think about what you’ll use the camera for and make a list. Write every single thing you’ll take a picture of, take a video of. Then write all the places you’d like to exhibit your photography and videos. Social media sites? Galleries? Short film contests? YouTube? Family barbeques? Then read TechnoBuffalo’s camera coverage and make an informed decision. Noah’s doing that right now.


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Mike Perlman

Mike Perlman grew up in Nintendo Land and developed a relationship with all things electronic and nerdy early on in his childhood career. Today,...Mike Perlman grew up in Nintendo Land and developed a relationship with all things electronic and nerdy early on in his childhood career. Today,...


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