Camera Tech

As we were putting this issue to bed, a familiar argument in the photography market was starting to resurface, thanks to the announcements from Canon that they had managed to create a 250-megapixel sensor on a chip just slightly larger than APS-C, and that they have plans to release a 120-megapixel DSLR and a 8K cinema camera in the future.

Within moments of the Canon announcements, online photography forums lit up, both commending and criticizing Canon with equal force. As is often the case, the detractors were most verbal and their complaints, while varied, centered around a few key points.

First, they claimed, Canon hasn’t been fast enough with releasing refreshes to their professional DSLRs. Users expressed frustration that Canon has produced a series of updated versions to existing cameras (5D Mark III, 7D Mark II), but no groundbreaking new pro DSLRs; Canon, they argued, hasn’t been fast enough to innovate. They point to the fact that a 250-megapixel sensor would require lenses much more precise than those today as evidence that Canon is showboating instead of designing things that pros could use.

Myth: Camera companies are showing off pointless prototypes

“A 120-megapixel body that records in 8K?!” they cried. “Who could use that?”

Then the supporters of Canon point to the company’s updated “Mark” cameras as proof that Canon is putting new features into updates instead of just waiting until they have enough new tech for a full body update. It’s a better solution, they argue, because new systems cost a lot to manufacture, so if the company waited until the costs of producing new components, milling, molds and production lines were justified, we’d wait a very, very long time for cameras. The updates are proof of the company’s commitment, they say.

About the super-high-res sensors Canon announced, they point out that today’s “groundbreaking” technology becomes the working standard in just a few short years. At some future point, we’ll be grabbing stills from 8K video and purchasing lenses that can resolve that resolution as if it were common.

Both parties are right, both parties are wrong. But they bring up an interesting point about technology and its impact on the customer—and this relates to the photographer in the digital era.

Back when cameras were capturing images on film, the average time between new top-end SLRs was around 10 years. Even film—the equivalent of the ever-evolving sensors in our digital cameras—updated at a very slow pace, and then the previous film stocks would stick around. Kodachrome begot Ektachrome, but that didn’t stop Kodak from continuing to produce their original slide film. Even when film stocks would be replaced with updates (Ilford’s HP-5 was replaced by HP-5 Plus), there wasn’t a huge difference; it was more a tweak of a formula.

After the photographic transition to digital began, things picked up. Moore’s Law (which describes the rapid rate of technological advances) came to photography and companies started to update cameras at a much faster pace. Pro bodies went from a decade-per-iteration cycle to two or three years.

Canon announced plans to release an EOS with a 120-megapixel sensor and 8K video recording, upsetting some photographers and thrilling others.

Even with that rapid pace, technology still updates in fits and starts. Those complaining that Canon hasn’t released a new pro model recently forget the heritage of the 1D camera. Technically, the EOS 1D was a digital update of the EOS 1V, the 1D II an update of the 1D and so on. Using that logic, Canon hadn’t created a completely new system until the 1D X. And, of course, that’s nonsense.

In retrospect, it’s easy to forget that the 1D lineup only updated every few years: the 1D in 2001, the 1D Mark II in 2004, the 1D Mark III in 2007, the 1D Mark IV in 2009 and the 1D X in 2012. That’s about three years between each “new” model, so nothing has changed.

It’s easy to compress the space between releases in hindsight and think nothing new is happening, as updates happened so fast in the past. They didn’t. It’s also easy to discount the benefit of technological leaps like a sensor at 250 megapixels and a consumer-focused tool at 120 megapixels with 8K video. Technology for the masses comes from technology for the record books. We wouldn’t have laptops or GPS navigation or smoke detectors or ear thermometers or memory foam if it wasn’t for NASA and engineers who thought outside the box to create new versions of an existing technology.

The important point is that photographic development—especially in the digital era—is neither as fast nor as slow as we remember it to be. And it happens in fits and starts. A lull in the megapixel wars doesn’t mean they’re over, and a rush of new cameras to market doesn’t mean we’re going to see wholesale new models every 12 months.

The camera you’re using today also won’t be any better or worse next year when a new camera comes out. So while technology helps make better images, the technology you’re using today is already incredibly good.

Back when a 4-megapixel camera was the “professional” resolution, the idea of cameras with 50 megapixels or cameras that could record 4K would have been ludicrous, yet fascinating.

Today’s gear is so good, in fact, that it’s the kind of thing that would have seemed impractical and imaginary less than two decades ago.

You can reach David Schloss on Twitter or Instagram @davidjschloss.

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