Friday, June 1, 2007
What's Next For Professional D-SLRs?
In the top echelon of digital cameras, we're seeing a change in priorities from the major manufacturers
One of the most contentious debates among professionals has been the discussion over the size of a camera's image sensor. When we launched Digital Photo Pro in 2003, there were two full-frame cameras on the market, the Canon EOS-1Ds and the Kodak DCS Pro 14. Both models were quite expensive, but offered some clear advantages over the bevy of sub-full frame choices coming out for photographers who were willing to make some compromises.
In the intervening years, the advantage of a full-frame image sensor has been mitigated by other technology advancements. At the same time, the costs and difficulties associated with manufacturing full-frame camera models haven't diminished as fast as many industry watchers might have predicted. Will we see a time when making a full-frame sensor is inexpensive and easy to do on the mass scale required? Of course, there's no certain answer, but only a fool would bet against technology's relentless advancements.
For the moment, it's telling that only Canon seems to remain fully committed to full-frame technology. Instead of going full-bore for its own full-frame camera model, Nikon chose to devote its energies to increasing the capabilities of the Dx-sized sensor. At the same time, Nikon has been aggressive in lens and software development which, when coupled with its Dx-sensor cameras, reduces or eliminates many of the disadvantages associated with the smaller sensor. For example, one of the biggest knocks on sub-full-frame image sensors is their difficulty with wide angles. The problem lies in both sensor and lens design. The inherent magnification factor of a smaller image sensor renders most conventional wide-angle lenses more telephoto. A 24mm lens looks more like 35mm, a 17mm lens looks more like 24mm and so on.
Making very short focal-length lenses is no easy task, and because of the three-dimensional nature of image sensors, there's a tendency to vignette when you go ultra-wide. Nikon dealt with this by producing 12mm lenses that minimize vignetting, and at the same time, enhancing its on-camera software and image-processing software to nullify any potential issues with the lens design.
There are always whispers about new killer cameras that are expected at the PMA show. For the past few years, there has been speculation that Canon would be going to an all-full-frame sensor lineup. When the EOS 5D came out, that speculation increased, but it quickly became clear that Canon wasn't abandoning the sub-full-frame sensor just yet. With the introduction of the EOS-1D Mark III, the commitment to that technology is clear. At the PMA show, the Mark III was described as capable of producing the best image quality of any Canon product. Yes, any Canon product. That's a remarkable statement from the company that makes the full-frame 16-megapixel EOS-1Ds Mark II.
So what's going on here?
It's clear that all camera companies will continue to press forward in research and development, and every new camera that comes out will supercede the previous generations. That much is obvious. What's less clear, though, is where research dollars will be concentrated.
When consumer digital cameras were becoming mainstream, the resolution quickly ramped up from 0.5 megapixels to 2 or more megapixels. At that time, a product manager from one of the manufacturers was speaking at a PMA forum and stated that the industry was topping out in resolution because no one really needed more than 2 megapixels. The executive went on to say that the megapixel wars were over and that, in the future, camera features would be the main differentiating elements from camera to camera.
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