NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2007
President's Corner
by Bill Moeller, President
(click to email author)

Our July meeting focused on my favorite digital subject—digital photography. We had a lively session with a lot of great questions. It ran well over the allotted time, but no one left early. I take that as a sign of interest in the subject.

Here is my write-up on the major part of the presentation.

An Update on Digital Photography

“Flat, easy, and convenient. That’s what my customers are looking for.” That’s how the lady in the camera department at Sears described her stock, which is 100% digital and nearly all of the “point and shoot” variety.

“99%,” was one local Walmart manager’s answer to a question about how much of his business was digital. Of the fifty or so cameras on the shelf at the time all but two were digital, and nearly all of those were point and shoot.

“100%,” was Bedford Camera’s reply to the same question. Doug Cotton, their Fayetteville store manager, said that it has been at least two years since he sold the last film camera in his store, and that most of his sales are now digital single lens reflexes. He said that their DSLR sales really took off two years ago, hitting 70% that Christmas, and have been growing ever since.

These folks would tell you that digital technology has replaced silver halide in the photographic world, and has done so at all levels from the casual point and shooter to the advanced amateur and professional photographer. Traditional film cameras and supplies, for all practical purposes, are now specialty items available only through catalogs and on special order.

Digital cameras today appear to fall into several fluid categories which correspond roughly to major market categories, shifting this way and that as new technological developments make their way to the market. The camera types serving these markets at this time are (1) the compact point-and-shoots, (2) the advanced compacts and super telephotos, (3) The digital single lens reflexes, and (4) medium and large format professional cameras.

The compact point and shoots are aimed primarily at the casual photographers who likely have no interest in photography as such, but want to take vacation and family pictures. “Flat, easy, and convenient” is more important to these users than the highest possible image quality. Cameras in this category necessarily have small sensors and limited range zoom lenses, frequently have no eye level viewfinder, and offer very limited user control.

At the upper end of this category cameras become necessarily larger as they begin to offer features amateur photographers might like—higher quality images, longer zoom range, better performance in dim light, manual controls, aperture and shutter priority modes, etc. At some point these cameras transition into advanced compacts, or what is often referred to as the “prosumer” category. These cameras often look a lot like DSLR’s but are smaller and lighter. They have many of the features of DSLR’s, but do not have interchangeable lenses, and are beginning to lack such niceties as hot shoes for external flash and filter mounting threads on the lens barrel. Although image quality is not as good as the DSLR’s, they do have several advantages over that class—smaller lenses (due to smaller sensors) mean less weight, greater zoom ranges, and wider maximum apertures; non-interchangeable lenses means no dust-on-the-sensor problems; and electronic view finders mean real time display of the image as seen on the sensor along with viewfinder display of all kinds of valuable information for the photographer.

For a while it looked like these “prosumer” cameras would continue to improve in image quality and SLR-like performance, but it now looks like a marketing decision has been made to go the super-zoom route, leaving them as the high end of the compact category and forcing amateur photographers who are really serious about image quality to move into the DSLR category. (This makes sense now that DSLR bodies are available for as little as five hundred dollars.) These are bigger cameras, with bigger sensors, and all the bells and whistles that serious photographers have come to expect over the past seventy or eighty years. Image quality, measured in true photographic terms and not just in megapixels, is better in most cases than 35mm film. DSLR bodies are being introduced which will use older lenses and lens accessories the photographer already owns. These cameras are being widely accepted by advanced amateur and professional photographers alike. From a marketing point of view, this is where the action is.

Then we have the medium and large format category—645 and 620 roll film sizes, and view camera backs. These are aimed at a select group of professional photographers who demand the very best in image quality. Digital resolution starts in this category at 22 megapixels, and prices start at twenty-five to thirty thousand. Image quality is, as you might expect, incredible, but at that price you and I can only envy and not participate.

Much like Detroit, the photo industry is constantly looking for new bells and whistles to add to its products so we will replace our old with their new. New features are typically introduced in the top-of-the-line models; and, if they fly, are filtered down to the other models. This year a number of neat ideas are being test flown with the DSLR’s, and some are already appearing in other models. Samsung, Fuji, and JOBI, for example, are introducing a GPS capability which adds location information to the EXIF metadata for the photograph. Sony has demonstrated wireless transmission of photos from one camera to another, Nikon has added “Connect 2 Wi-Fi” to one of its mass market models, and Canon has added a Wi-Fi capability to its top of the line model allowing remote viewing directly off the camera’s sensor as well as remote adjustment of the camera’s settings. Face recognition, which permits automatic focus to automatically concentrate on the face or faces in a scene without user intervention is a fairly common feature on cameras at all levels this year. Sigma has extended the dynamic range of the image using dedicated photosites in its DSLR’s, and that same top of the line Canon captures 14 bit per channel digital images to do the same thing. Several manufacturers are making direct camera to printer connection more attractive by introducing in-camera processing capabilities which until now required PC (or Mac) intervention. Nikon’s D40x, for example, has a Retouch menu which allows lightening pictures, redeye correction, cropping, image overlay, black and white conversion, sepia toning, and filter (skylight, warm, color balance) effects.

But it’s not all in the cameras. Similarly exciting things are going on in the digital darkroom, where printers, inks, papers, and image processing software are being steadily improved. But that’s another story, for another day.

Our next meeting will be a Q&A on August 18th. See you there.

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