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
After a point, increasing resolution on a chip with fixed dimensions can be expected to produce diminishing returns. More photosites require more power, produce more heat and generate more noise and color saturation drops. When do you have too many megapixels? It's too many when image quality suffers because of resolution.
We're at a point now when professional camera bodies all produce very high-resolution images. Adding a million photosites to a chip that has 3 megapixels is a 33-percent increase in resolution, but adding a million photosites to a chip with 10 megapixels nets you a much more paltry 10 percent increase. And when you consider that every additional photosite makes increasing demands on computer hardware and software, the need for more resolution with every successive generation fades.
We fully expect that the manufacturers will continue to develop higher resolution image sensors, but we also expect to see a fundamental shift away from resolution being the primary distinguishing characteristic of a camera.
With the only professional-level camera introduced at PMA being the Canon EOS-1D Mark III, the writing is on the wall. The Mark III has features that professionals have been wanting in a high-end camera for some time, but it makes no leaps forward in resolution. Instead, it makes leaps forward in refining image quality. There's more onboard computing power and refinements in the sensor to produce images that are billed as being superior to any other camera in the Canon line. We're looking at the quality of the image versus the quantity of photosites on the image sensor.
Photography today is built around more than just the camera, it's about the system as a whole. The camera, flash, lens, internal processor and postprocessing software all play equal roles as links in the image chain.
Research and development resources are being devoted to all of the links so that the overall image quality is as good as it can be. The camera still plays an essential role, of course, but your next D-SLR is more likely to be defined by how it works with image data rather than its ability to pack more photosites on the sensor.
While the EOS-1D Mark III was the main PMA camera introduction for professionals, it wasn't the only new camera unveiled at the show. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax and Sony all had their latest mid-level and entry-level models on display to much acclaim and fanfare. A company's fortunes are made or lost in this part of the market, so it's no wonder we see so many new and improved models coming out. It's a golden age for photo enthusiasts, as they have affordable camera outfits that are capable of producing images that are superior to many professional models of a few years ago. In this end of the market, resolution gains are still a major driving force in camera sales, so in the near term, at least, we expect to see resolution advancements carrying the bulk of the marketing message.
The Sigma SD14, introduced in late 2006, is the latest professional D-SLR from the company. Like its predecessors, the SD14 is built around a Foveon image sensor that operates more like a piece of film than a conventional image sensor. The Foveon chip captures red, blue and green color information on every photosite, whereas all other image sensors capture only one color's information on a photosite, then interpolate the color information for the overall image. The unique technology holds a lot of promise for the market as a whole, but at this time, only Sigma is using the Foveon sensor.
The SD14's sensor has 4.6 million photosites, but Sigma claims a total resolution of 14.1 megapixels because of the manner in which the chip captures image data. Sigma uses the term "photodetectors" to describe that 14.1 million number. The SD14 is a vast improvement to the previous Sigma cameras, and further refinements aimed at enhancing image quality are expected.
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