The digital-camera world is in motion and there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there to read. Herewith a quick summary of the state of play, with pointers.
What We’d Like · That would be a digicam that’s small enough to fit in your pocket, is physically indestructible, has 5-6 megapixels or more, can do really wide-angle and really extreme telephotos, boots & shoots almost instantly, and has terrific light sensitivity so you can work at the equivalent of ISO1600 in low light.
Well, there aren’t any; but there is decent progress on several different approaches to that ideal. There are a lot of trade-offs; to get a feeling for them, a good place to start would be Parts I and II of Beyond Megapixels, over at TheTechLounge.
Pocket Prosumers · Prosumer basically means “expensive small digicam,” I’ve never actually seen a professional use one. The ones that can fit in your pocket currently max out at 5MP; the Canon S50 that I use is a good example. I note that it’s recently been superseded by the S60, which makes it a little smaller, a little faster, and gives it a better lens. Also there’s this weird-looking snap-on telephoto, never seen anything like that before.
For reasons I’ve discussed before, pocket fit is a crucial factor for me, so I suspect I’m going to stay in this space when I wear out the S50; if I were shopping today I’d probably get the S60.
Bigger Prosumers · Moving up from the pocket models, in a larger format you can (as of mid-2004) pack in 8MP. Digital Photo Review has recently taken a tour through the 8MP landscape with looks at models from Canon, Konica, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony (they think the Olympus is the best).
You can go upmarket in another direction; the insanely expensive Leica Digilux 2 has “only” 5MP but lovely lenses, a massively-cool design, slick analogue controls, and of course that Leica label. Panasonic sells the identical camera, minus that label, for $300 less.
SLRs · As they cram more and more pixels into these teeny little cameras, they get awfully small and awfully close together. So there are problems with light sensitivity. Also, the form factor constrains what you can do with lenses (to start with, they’re usually not switchable). Plus they take a long time to boot up.
You can solve all those problems at one fell swoop by going to the classic 35mm size SLR format. Those letters stand for Single-Lens Reflex, and the name is one of the reasons they’re good; you look into the eyepiece and out the main lens of the camera, seeing exactly what the picture’s going to be. Also the larger format allows for a bigger CCD, i.e. bigger, more light-sensitive, pixels. For that reason, the 5 or 6MP typically found in these things give at least as much “practical” resolution as you get in an 8MP prosumer.
And of course you pay more; but one of the hot news stories in the digicam world over the last year has been the arrival of digital SLRs at price points below a thousand dollars US; of which the hot seller these days is the Nikon D70.
Since those 8MP prosumers are pushing up toward the thousand-buck mark, the choice between those and an SLR is getting increasingly interesting.
Ken Rockwell offers an extended rant on why he thinks it’s no trade-off at all; but in among all the rhetoric is a lot of good stuff.
Trade-Offs, Issues, and Futures · The practical trade-offs are discussed interestingly in a writeup on the S50 in The Luminous Landscape, a web site featuring intelligent write-ups, beautiful pictures, and amateurish butt-ugly web design; go figure. Also, one of my favorite bloggers, Jeremy Hedley of Antipixel, recently covered some of the issues; I suspect he’d get better pictures than me on a drugstore disposable. Also, his is the only site I’ve pointed to in this article, I think, that has appealing page design.
For a very revealing look at the trade-offs, head back to The Luminous Landscape for their their comparison of two 8MP Canon products whose price differs by $3,500.
Which Way Forward? · I think it’s pretty clear that the landscape is changing and it’s tough to predict what the digicam of ten years from now will look like. One interesting direction is based on the notion that the SLR format, built around the dimensions of 35mm film, is really physically bigger than you need for even a big digital CCD, so there ought to be a happy medium between the pocket and SLR formats. This ought to give you all the advantages of the SLR format but at a smaller size and with lenses better suited to the medium.
Olympus’ “E System” is an interesting commercial attempt in this direction, built around an 18x13.5-mm CCD. It gets a measured review here, but this may be a direction to watch. I can see getting a digital SLR sometime down the road for holidays when I don’t require that the camera fit in my pocket; and something like the E Series, a little bit better debugged, might be just the ticket.