Digital Camera Chronicles
46 -- The state of digital cameras at the end of 2007
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
A year ago, in the waning days of 2006, I wrote a column that asked, "With so many megapixels for so cheap, what separates digital cameras these days?" What I referred to, of course, was that after six or seven years of having to pay hefty price premiums for the latest digicams, prices had come down so much that megapixel hardly mattered anymore. By the end of 2006, even an inexpensive digital camera had five to seven megapixel and that was more than enough to make enlargements and crop to one's heart's content. I listed the ways digital camera manufacturers were now differentiating their products: LCD size, bigger optical zooms, image stabilization, internal storage, and an increasing number of buzzwords that suggested quicker operation and better pictures.
End of 2007: you get even more camera for even less!
So how does it look 12 months later, at the end of 2007? Did these trends continue? They did. Whereas five to seven megapixel were the standard a year ago, today hardly any digital camera comes with less than seven megapixel, most have eight, and 10 and 12 megapixel models are available. And with film cameras essentially gone, the old argument that "well, sure it costs more; it is digital!" no longer flies and prices have continued to drop. You can now get a functional digital camera fo well under US$100 and there are any number of decent cameras from big-name manufacturers in the US$150-200 range. Between US$200 and 300 you can expect extra features, performance and style, and any camera over US$300 must pack quite a punch in order to warrant such a high price in consumers' minds.
Prices keep dropping
While one reason for the price drops in consumer cameras is the rapid disappearance of film, another reason is that digital SLRs have also come down in price a lot, thus putting price pressure on higher end consumer products. It hasn't been that long since Canon and others broke the US$1,000 barrier for digital SLRs, and now some very good ones are available in the US$400-600 range!
That totally changes buying patterns. Many who would have bought a compact a year or two ago for price reasons now buy a digital SLR instead. They are not only much less expensive, but have become smaller and lighter, too. Digital SLRs, of course, do remain big and bulky compared to the stunningly tiny and elegant consumer cameras that can snap 10 and even 12 megapixel pictures all day long and so the two are not really in competition. Still, serious photographers on a budget now have a choice: they can get a handy high end consumer camera or a low-cost but very competent digital SLR for under US$500.
Differentiators: LCD displays
With prices down so much, what have digital camera manufacturers done in 2007 to differentiate their products and attract customers? Well, the size and quality of LCD displays is still a differentiator. Not as much as it was in the past, but it still is. Most cameras are now so small that they can't accommodate a display larger than 2.5 to 2.8 inches diagonally, and so that's what most new digicams have. Some go up to three inches and we've even seen some with PDA-sized 3.5-inch displays, but that is the exception.
Most manufacturers have realized they can no longer get away with a dinky little display. A 2-inch display on a digital camera was a sensation when it first came out a few years ago. Today it'd be considered too small. So everyone offers something in the 2.5 to 2.8-inch range. The differentiators now are resolution and outdoor viewability. Be sure to check the specs: if it's in the 85-115k pixel range, the display will be coarse and grainy and you won't be able to tell if a picture is sharp even when you zoom in. Resolutions in the 200-250k pixel range, on the other hand, are crisp and clear, and you can always tell if a picture is in focus.
Outdoor viewable displays
Outdoor viewability is another matter altogether. Optical viewfinders are almost extinct, which means you rely on the LCD to see the picture. Unfortunately, a good many still wash out outdoors and you can't see a thing. In that case, all you can do is point the camera in the general direction of the subject and hope for the best. Not a very satisfying solution.
The problem is that getting good contrast and viewability outdoors on a LCD display is not an easy matter. It's essentially a combination of a strong backlight (which depletes battery power very quickly) and sophisticated anti-reflective coatings that come either as separate layers or are directly bonded onto the LCD. What those treatments seek to accomplish is to provide high enough contrast to make the camera displays readable outdoors. The contrast ratio that matters for viewability is that between the backlight and the reflected daylight. There is no ideal solution yet, and so many people miss the good old-fashioned optical viewfinder for which there is simply no room anymore in today's tiny cameras with their big LCDs.
If outdoor viewability is a big issue with you, seek a camera that still has an optical viewfinder or at least make sure the camera you choose has a outdoor-viewable display.
It's a Buyer's Market!
What it all comes down to is that consumers are clearly in the driver's seat. They get more power and performance than ever, have more choices than ever, and all at lower prices than ever. There are so many excellent digital cameras in the US$129 to US$249 range that it's often difficult to make a decision. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if many digital cameras were bought based on their good looks, colors, or perhaps brand name. Or maybe just on price. It's a difficult marketing game for manufacturers, too. How does one differentiate between a dozen different cameras that all cost roughly the same?
Everyone looks the same!
A few years ago manufacturers sought to differentiate their cameras via design and megapixel. Nikon's Coolpix cameras had a very distrinctive "swivelbody" design. Sony Mavicas were big and square because they used floppy disks for storage. Canon introduced the boxy little Digital ELPH. And so on. Today, they all look almost the same. So it was on to adding different features, and for a while some manufacturers had an edge in certain areas of technology, like auto-focus or speed or features. Today even that is gone as features often seem to be developed by small independent labs and companies and then licensed to the big manufacturers.
2007 must-have feature #1: face detection
For example, virtually every new camera in 2007 had a "face detection" feature that makes sure that the camera concentrates on what matters in a portrait -- the face. Some cameras can handle several faces in group shots, even when a child runs around. But that is not all. There are now special "family" modes where you can make the camera remember the face of a loved one. Depending on the setting, the camera will then try to pick out the face, or faces, it knows and make sure they are properly exposed! But even that is not all. Some cameras now have a "laugh" mode. Use it, and the camera will sit there patiently until the subject smiles, then quickly take a few shots in rapid succession. So if these things are important, by all means study the specs and features on the manufacturers' websites (or read our reviews!).
2007 must-have feature #2: that special extra
Though it's hardly ever apparent to consumer what exactly they mean, buzzwords remain important marketing tools. Nikon has its EXPEED "advanced image processing system" technology. Olympus touts the TruePic III Image Processor that is supposed to delivers more vibrant colors, smoother edges, less nose and higher overall speed. Pentax has a "Green Mode," Casio a special "YouTube" setting that records in the popular video sharing site's MPEG-4 H.264 format, thus speeding up upload and processing. Electronics are a true differentiator, and that is especially true when one of the big companies offers something proprietary that no one else has.
2007 must-have feature #3: image stabilization
One technology that I mentioned in last year's summary remains important, and is becoming ever more so, and that is image stabilization, sometimes called blur reduction or vibration reduction. Whatever you call it, it's meant to reduce the number of blurry, unsharp pictures that happen when you don't hold the camera still. There are various methods to do this, but basically all fall into one of two categories. "Digital" stabilization decreases the shutter speed, which always cuts down on potential blur, and makes up for it by increasing sensitivity. The drawback here is that the pictures can become grainy. "Optical" stabilization uses sensor that detect movement of the camera and then use motors to stabilize either the sensor or the lens, thus canceling out the movement of the camera. This is generally the preferred method. Higher end models often use both technologies.
Smaller cards with higher capacities
As far as storage goes, most consumer cameras now use either SD Cards, Memory Sticks, or xD Picture cards. The much larger Compact Flash cards are almost gone, even from larger dSLRs. Onboard storage is often larger now, sometimes over 50MB, but that is canceled out by the higher image resolution. It'd actually be nice to see a digital camera with 2 or 4GB onboard. Heck, storage costs virtually nothing these days.
Many ways to get pictures off the camera
As far as moving pictures from the camera to the computer or printing them out somehow, there are numerous ways. Virtually all cameras come with cables to connect the camera to the computer. Almost all laptops and many new desktops now have multi-format card readers, and so you can stick whatever memory card your camera has directly into the computer. Wireless transfer still hasn't had a break-through. You'd expect Bluetooth to be popular by now for image transfer, but it isn't. Nikon and a few others offer 802.11 WiFi to directly transfer pictures from a camera, but the process is usually cumbersome. An interesting new product is the Eye-Fi card that combines 2GB of storage with WiFi in a standard SD card. The software is on the card. Once installed, the card will simply wirelessly send pictures to your PC or even directly to your favorite photo sharing site(s).
Move from optical to electronics specialists
We're also seeing another interesting phenomenon: the type of companies that make digital cameras is changing. In the olden days of film where cameras were primarily about optics and mechanics, it was optical experts that dominated the market. So the likes of Nikon and Minolta and Leica made great cameras and Kodak and Agfa and Fuji supplied the film and film paper.
With digital cameras, it's all different. Sure, optics still matter, but in inexpensive cameras lenses are commodity items and even in higher end models they increasingly come via joint-ventures and licensing agreements with the few remaining world-class lens makers. The new name of the game is electronics and manufacturing. These days digital cameras are all about micro-electronics, ever more speed, and ever more advanced features. Traditional camera makers cannot keep up; it's just too expensive to do all the research and manufacturing. Canon was able to do it, and perhaps Sony, but almost everyone else struggles and frantically cobbles together components made somewhere else. I wouldn't be surprised if soon virtually all cameras are made by a small number of OEMs in China.
Now go and buy one!
So that's the digital camera situation at the end of 2007. You get more camera for less money than ever. But you need to do your homework and hunt for the best price. And educate yourself a bit on the latest features and whether you need them or not. Once done, chances are you'll find a new digital camera with a terrific display, speedy operation, very high resolution, cool looks, long battery life, and lots of useful and entertaining new features. Life is good for digital photographers! -- C. H. Blickenstorfer