Camera Tech

2011 was something of a perfect storm for the camera industry. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan directly affected plants from Canon, Nikon, Sony and other manufacturers, and it was followed quickly thereafter by a global shortage of electronic parts caused by three long months of monsoons in Thailand. The rains drowned a large chunk of the electronics manufacturing chain, directly affecting Nikon, which lost a number of manufacturing facilities to a deluge that submerged their financial projections as much as the buildings. Add to that the political and economic uncertainty of the global economy, and it all contributed to a year that saw very few pro cameras, very little in terms of revolutionary technologies and a lot of gear that was more of an improvement over previous models than anything groundbreaking.

Myth: It’s been a slow year for photography

Still, taking a step back to look at the bigger picture will give a better sense that there was indeed a great deal of innovation, even if most of it was behind the scenes. From Olympus’ PEN line to Panasonic’s G series of cameras to Samsung’s NX200 to the Pentax Q, 2011 saw a slew of new mirrorless compact interchangeable-lens models, culminating in the long-anticipated Nikon J1 and V1 cameras. Affectionately dubbed as EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Inter-changeable Lens), MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera) and other names, this class of camera removes the standard mirror-based viewfinder to reduce bulk. These are not a pro class of camera though. Extracting the mirror also cuts short autofocusing capabilities, as the mirror is needed for performing much faster phase-detect autofocus.

2011 saw the release of Sony’s much-sought-after SLT-A77, how-ever. The DSLR’s autofocusing system further explored Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology with a fixed mirror that enables phase detection, thanks to the semi-transparent design. With a top burst rate of 10 fps in a body at only $1,400, the result is a camera somewhere in between the exterior design of a DSLR and the inner workings of a mirrorless camera. Nikon’s 1 mirrorless line also uses hybrid phase-detect AF and contrast-detect AF, with a maximum burst rate ringing in at 10 fps, and it’s likely that this technology will be seen in more advanced mirrorless and hybrid cameras in the immediate future.

Since the introduction of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Nikon D90, the last two years have been all about the nexus of stills meeting motion in a single camera solution. With the release of the Canon EOS-1D X, for instance, we’re just starting to see what can be considered the second generation of video-capable DSLRs. The 1D X includes a variety of improvements to the video capabilities of Canon’s HD DSLRs over previous models, like time-code options, better sound control and 30-minute clips instead of the 12-minute maximums of earlier cameras. Canon has said that the EOS-1D X doesn’t downsample resolution at the sensor, either, a major improvement that results in less jelly motion and reduced moiré. Canon also has announced its new line of Cinema EOS products with the release of the C300/C300 PL camcorder and a teased DSLR body that promises 4K video resolution.

While some photographers choose to concentrate on the still side, there’s no denying that the incredible video capabilities of DSLRs are spurring on the entire industry. An enormous amount of accessories were produced over the last two years for turning your palm-sized still camera into a filmmaking machine. Considering that the megapixel wars have been lying somewhat dormant for the last year (thankfully so), you might consider the latest ever-increasing large-capacity memory cards (128 GB!) to be driven as much by video as they are by stills. We’re even looking at areas of technology that were practically irrelevant to the photographic industry before, like sound.

In fact, with video companies like RED introducing hybrid photo and video cameras like the Scarlet-X, things are about to get all the more interesting. At the time of this writing, Nikon is heavily rumored to be introducing a new video-capable professional camera, most likely a replacement for the more than three-year-old Nikon D700. Canon is expected to be announcing a replacement for the incredibly popular and yet similarly ancient 5D Mark II. Meanwhile the 1D X is hitting shelves. Now that January’s CES has absorbed the annual PMA trade show, the turn of 2012 is likely to bring even more promise.

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