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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Camera Systems In The Digital Age

Today as camera manufacturers control all aspects of image capture and processing, it's time to reexamine what it means to buy into a system

Digital Systems Without Compromises

The real strengths of the camera system emerge when you couple current lenses that have been designed to be used on a digital camera to your SLR. In the case of these lenses, the optics can be designed hand-in-hand with not only the image sensor, but the processing software as well.

Breaking away from the hypothetical XYZ Corporation, let's look at Nikon and the Dx lenses and Canon and the EOS EF-S lenses. Both the Dx and EF-S series are designed exclusively for their respective digital bodies. (You can mount them on a film camera, but the image will be vignetted because the lenses project a smaller image circle than a frame of 35mm film.) As with any lens design, these lenses make various compromises, but by taking into account the latest sensor design and in-camera image-processing technology, the engineers are able to prioritize which compromises to make in light of which compromises might be easier to mitigate through sensor design and processing.

The power of the full digital system becomes apparent quickly when you consider what the optical engineers, sensor engineers and software engineers can accomplish together. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax—every manufacturer can take advantage of the design flexibility within digital technology, provided they have a measure of control over the design and manufacture of the components.

Integration Of Accessories

Beyond lens, camera and processing engineering, a system consists of myriad accessories such as external flash and wireless adapters. When you buy into a system, you're also buying into the seamless functionality of these accessories. New flash units, in particular, sport more sophisticated controls than the most advanced studio strobe units of a few years ago. That sophistication can be difficult to control, however, due to the complex menus they all seem to have. Simplifying the process is the integration of camera and flash from the point of design.

Flash photography was always emphasized as a reason to buy into a film system. Manufacturers have always been able to maximize the capabilities of a flash with their cameras, but digital cameras are taking the integration to new levels. Wireless control has come a long way from the basics of a simple slave trigger. For example, you can use a camera to remotely control the individual output of a number of flash units. If you've positioned a flash in an area where it's not especially accessible, altering the output from that flash, or cutting it off altogether, is now a relatively simple matter because of the integration of camera and flash. The functionality in this area is almost unlimited, and future cameras and flashes will continue to exploit the technology.

The Image Chain

When you buy into a camera system today, you're buying into the full chain of building an image. We've moved far beyond the era of film cameras and the notion that you bought a system simply because you liked the way everything fit together. Building your final image is very much like building a chain one link at a time, and like any chain, the image can only be as good as the weakest link. Engineering a system of completely integrated lenses, sensors, bodies, processors, A/D converters accessories and RAW-processing software strengthens each link and results in the best images possible.

Today when you buy into a camera system, you're buying into much more than a group of components that fit together. Unlike film-based camera systems, the manufacturer of a digital system controls all aspects of the image, from the lens that focuses the light to the sensor that records the image to the processors that generate the final image. The manufacturers are integrating these components to eliminate compromises in design and enable you to make the best possible image. Collaboration between lens designers and sensor designers is unique to digital camera systems. In the age of film, the camera makers didn't produce the film, so it fell out of their control, but now these engineers can work together to eliminate optical compromises. Software built into the camera and RAW converters are two areas where full system integration really comes to fruition. The software serves as a link between the “latent image file” and the years of research behind the design of the lens, sensor and camera components.



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