Pixel Counting Joins Film in Obsolete Bin
IF you work in the camera industry, February is an exciting month. That's when you head down to Florida for the annual Photo Marketing Association convention, where your company will unveil its latest camera models, thus making the ones everybody got for Christmas obsolete.
But this February is more exciting than most. Big changes are in the photographic air.
First, there's the astonishing collapse of the film camera market. By some tallies, 92 percent of all cameras sold are now digital. Big-name camera companies are either exiting the film camera business ( Kodak, Nikon) or exiting the camera business altogether (Konica Minolta). Film photography is rapidly becoming a special-interest niche.
Next, there's the end of the megapixel race. "In compact cameras, I think that the megapixel race is pretty much over," says Chuck Westfall, director of media for Canon's camera marketing group. "Seven- and eight-megapixel cameras seem to be more than adequate. We can easily go up to a 13-by-19 print and see very, very clear detail."
That's a shocker. After 10 years of hearing how they need more, more, more megapixels, are consumers really expected to believe that eight megapixels will be the end of the line?
Well, we'll see. But if the age of megapixel insecurity is really over, what will motivate us to buy a new camera every couple of years?
NOW, trying to predict the future of technology is a fool's game. But if you study enough trends and interview enough camera company executives, you get some tantalizing ideas of what's in the labs right now. Here's a tour of what you may be seeing in digital cameras, presented in a sequence of more and more distant horizons.
ABANDONING THE FILM LOOK Now that consumers are comfortable with going all digital, camera companies no longer feel compelled to mimic the size, shape and features of film cameras. Today's cameras embrace their electronic nature, taking on more radical looks and talents.
You can see it in Kodak's startling-looking V570 camera, which has two built-in lenses, each with its own sensor (a nonzooming wide-angle lens and a 3X zoom lens). You also see it in Sony's sleek hinged M2 slab, which has so little resemblance to a camera, you have to explain it to people. Canon has displayed prototypes with clear acrylic bodies, giving you a transparent look into the guts.
IMAGE STABILIZERS The hot trend for 2006 is image stabilization. This feature, available in a flood of new camera models, improves your photos' clarity by ironing out your little hand jiggles.
This feature is an enormous help in three situations: When you're zoomed in all the way (which magnifies jitters), in low light (meaning that the shutter stays open a long time, increasing the likelihood of blurring), and when your camera doesn't have an eyepiece viewfinder (forcing you to hold the camera at arm's length, decreasing stability).
CAMCORDER TENDENCIES Only two years ago, still cameras and video cameras were each terrible at doing the other's job. Today, camcorders still take crummy photos, but digital still cameras take increasingly high-quality movies. Almost all current models can record video that fills a standard TV screen (640 by 480 pixels) with TV-quality smoothness (30 frames per second).
Canon, in particular, is pushing the envelope here. Its PowerShot S80 can capture movies larger than TV size (1,024 by 768 pixels), for better viewing on high-definition screens and computer monitors; meanwhile, several cameras in its SD and A series can film at 60 frames per second. That's twice the smoothness of TV, and a great help when analyzing your golf swing or tennis serve. Canon's S2 IS can even film and snap stills simultaneously, thanks to separate shutter and start-stop buttons.
Kodak, Samsung, Canon and Olympus offer cameras that can zoom and refocus while you're filming. Unfortunately, on most models, the grinding noise of the zoom lens motor drowns out your audio track, but progress is being made here, too. Samsung says that the zoom on its Digimax i6 camera, arriving in stores later this month, works silently in movie mode.
WIRELESS The P1 from Nikon and Elph SD430 from Canon both offer Wi-Fi wireless networking. Unfortunately, the only thing those cameras can do is transfer your pictures wirelessly to a computer or printer; they don't connect to the Internet.
The EasyShare-One from Kodak, however, can send your photos by e-mail or post them on a free Kodak Web page or even go the opposite direction, summoning photos from your online stash to the camera's screen on demand.
SMARTER SOFTWARE A typical digicam takes at least two years to go from the drawing board to the store shelves. Many of the cameras you'll buy in 2007 and 2008, in other words, have already been designed.
The Olympus Evolt 330 combines the interchangeable lens typical of an S.L.R. with a preview display.
They may include global positioning system receivers, so that, as you browse your photos in iPhoto or Picasa, you'll know not only when you took them, but where.
Some of Nikon's CoolPix models already contain face-recognition software, a feature that supposedly assists focus by scanning the scene for human facial features. And Canon is working on even more sophisticated recognition software. One, called Blink Shot, would prevent the camera from taking the picture when your subject's eyes are closed. A companion feature, called Smile Shot, waits to fire until your subject manages a grin.
BETTER BATTERIES Most compact cameras today use lithium-ion cells that, on average, provide 300 shots between charges.
According to Mr. Westfall of Canon, however, the future is hydrogen fuel cells, which will provide far longer-lasting power. "This technology is already in development," he said. "They'll probably make their debut in laptop batteries first, and then make their way into cellphones and digital cameras."
BETTER SCREENS Camera screens are getting better and bigger. Diagonal dimensions of 2 or 2.5 inches are common today; Kodak and Sony each offer 3-inch screens (touch-sensitive ones at that, to reduce buttons on the camera's back), and the new Samsung Digimax Pro 815 packs an industry-leading, absolutely gigantic 3.5-incher. Showing off your photos on this baby is almost like handing around a stack of drugstore prints.
Unfortunately, the bigger the screen, the greater the power drain. The buzz among camera designers these days, therefore, is OLED screens (organic light-emitting diode), which offer much better brightness but much lower power consumption. You can expect to see such screens within the next year.
THE POCKET-SIZE S.L.R. For complex reasons involving lens design and light-sensor dimensions, the photos taken by today's sleek, shirt-pocketable minicams can't touch the quality of scenes captured by digital S.L.R. (single-lens reflex) cameras.
Yet digital S.L.R.'s are big, bulky and heavy. And you can't use the screen to compose your shots, which, on other cameras, is a delicious convenience. You must frame your shots by peering through the eyepiece.
Camera designers are hammering away at this problem, too. The Olympus Evolt 330 S.L.R., announced last week, contains a second sensor that does nothing but feed the scene to the screen. Olympus says that you therefore get the best of both worlds: an interchangeable-lens S.L.R. with a live preview on the screen.
That helps, but even the Evolt is not what you'd call credit card size. Shrinking the camera without losing photo quality may be the most difficult technological challenge of all.
Still, there's hope in the form of liquid lenses. When an electrical charge is applied to a liquid lens, the droplet changes shape. Apply the charge in just the right way, and you can make the droplet change focus, or even zoom. Although liquid-lens technology is only in its infancy, it could one day replace the huge, heavy discs of glass that weigh down the digital S.L.R.
THE NEXT-GEN CAMERA Paradise is still not in the cards; for one thing, nobody has yet figured out how to store all those digital photos for future generations. It's not clear how long hard drives and home-burned CD's can last, and the software question is even more frightening. Will the under-the-skin nanocomputers of 2100 still recognize JPEG files?
Even so, you have a lot to look forward to: hydrogen-powered shirt-pocket cameras with liquid lenses, four-inch OLED touch screens, G.P.S. features, software that snaps only the best facial expressions and wireless circuitry that beams the result to your friends and fans.
You think February 2006 is exciting? Wait till February 2020.