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Pushing the Limits of Camera Equipment Featured

Pushing the Limits of Camera Equipment Pushing the Limits of Camera Equipment

What photographers can expect to see in the near future

In 1987, just before the first issue of PhotoMedia was published, advancements in camera equipment happened at a relatively slow rate. There were always subtle improvements in film stock, optics and electronics, but most pro and consumer shooters at the time could buy equipment and expect it to last 20 to 30 years with a few add-ons and new lenses.

This leisurely pace changed once the digital revolution swept the industry in the mid-'90s. As film cameras were replaced by ever-improving CMOS sensors, cameras were becoming obsolete within a few years, or even a few months.

Today, advancements are happening as rapidly as ever, creating four broad categories: camera phones, compact pocket cameras, compact interchangeable-lens cameras (CILCs), and higher-end single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Over the next 25 years, these categories will likely merge and split into even more varieties, but here's what photographers can expect, at least in the near future.

Can you see me now?

Phones are now the main type of camera that people have on hand most of the time. Smartphones such as Apple's iPhone 4S provide a more-than-good-enough capacity for photography. Most models provide 5 to 8 megapixels of image resolution, and their optics and speed of picture capture have greatly improved since their introduction a decade ago. In addition to being the camera that you always have with you, smartphones provide two crucial advantages over standard pocket cameras. First, they are, in effect, portable computers with an operating system that can run an ever-increasing number of apps, enabling you to edit and enhance your images on the fly.

Second, they are connected. Photography is as much about sharing our photos as it is about capturing them. Standard cameras do absolutely nothing when it comes to that primary task — they require you to offload the images to a computer, and then use e-mail or a web service to share your photos with friends and family.

A camera phone, however, lets you show right now what you are seeing right now — or at least post this afternoon to Facebook what you did today so that your friends can see it tonight — rather than wait days or weeks. Some types of photography, after all, are enhanced by immediacy.

Compact cameras absolutely have to add apps and connectivity. However, they still have image capture advantages over phones. Primarily, they offer higher resolution and faster, brighter optics with telephoto lenses. We are not likely to see 30x or even 3x optical zooms in most phones, as those devices have to be rugged enough to be tossed in a pocket or purse.

New technologies such as Nokia's PureView, however, point to alternatives for mobile imaging: intelligent application of newly developed sensors that use, for example, 42 megapixels. This resolution has been added not to capture giant images, but to provide real, useful digital zooming without more fragile glass. Other developers are coming out with innovative computational photography techniques that use the ever-smarter processors in smartphones to provide imaging improvements that compact cameras cannot.

Smaller is better

What can the standard camera come up with to stay in the game? For almost a decade, many pundits have been predicting the demise of this product category in light of camera phones' increasing popularity. However, camera companies have continued to offer new technologies and techniques that maintain an imaging advantage. Recent innovations have included panorama sweep, which easily and quickly combines dozens, if not hundreds, of images into one ultra-wide photo.

Ultracompact cameras today are as small as — or even smaller than — smartphones, yet offer much greater resolution, with 16-megapixel, backside-illuminated sensors that take better photos in low light than phones can capture, with 3x to 6x optical zooms that bring the action closer.

But the advantages these units offer over mobiles are decreasing. In the near future, look for sales in this category to shrink, except perhaps for rugged, weatherized, underwater models that can take a beating and keep on clicking — and that we are comfortable using in circumstances that threaten our fragile, expensive smartphones.

If we move up a little in size, we get significant advantages: notably larger sensors and much, much longer zooms. This year, many vendors are offering 30x and even longer zooms.

In the compact category in the next few years we expect to see more of the same: affordable devices that capture much better pictures than camera phones thanks to more pixels and better glass.

For those who don't want to spend more than $500, these will continue to be the devices to reach for when we go to those important events in our lives for which we want better-than-phone photos.

CILCs start to click

The next step up from the compact camera is the compact system camera, or the compact interchangeable-lens camera: the CILC. These models offer sensors that are sized similarly to SLRs, and the capability to swap lenses — a fast pancake wide-angle for an ultra-long zoom, for example. However, they do so without the moving mirror behind the "single-lens reflex" that gives an SLR its name, and so offer much more convenient sizes and weights.

This is the category that will show the most innovation in the next few years, as companies without significant investments in legacy technologies will develop better sensors and processors that will appear in these up-sell models before any others. That said, CILCs have to prove a compelling advantage over the all-in-one compact cameras, which can provide all the picture-taking possibilities except for interchangeable lenses. After all, how many nonprofessional photographers continually crave the capability to carry around extra-fragile, pricey glass?

Twilight of the SLRs

Finally, we have the SLR, the camera of choice for professionals and many enthusiasts. A few years back, this category encroached on consumer-level pricing, which yielded a huge boom in mass-market sales. Correspondingly, this led to additional profits in lenses and other add-ons. Next, high-definition (HD) video came to the SLR in a big way, making it the device of choice for enthusiasts and low-budget professionals in the filmmaking world. We expect that both of those trends have peaked. CILCs offer all the advantages of an SLR that an enthusiast wants without the bulk necessitated by the moving mirror: good sensors, good video capture and a wide choice of lenses.

Professional still photographers will continue to upgrade to improved SLRs as long as the manufacturers continue to offer compelling features. This year Canon and Nikon both announced new high-end SLRs with less noisy imagers and — more importantly, perhaps — much improved and much speedier autofocus. That said, we would bet that the classic SLR camera is nearing the end of its life cycle, and no company will be investing much in these designs in, say, 2017.

New dimensions

Also on the capture side: while sensor developments do roughly fall into the four above categories (camera phones, compact pocket cameras, CILCs, and SLRs), image processors are improving across the board. The algorithms and computational photography techniques that can drastically improve the picture, regardless of sensor, are leaving the labs at an accelerating rate and making their way into devices large and small. We are just beginning to see how image processing can improve image capture. What once was purely the purview of post-processing in Photoshop is increasingly done in real time in-camera instead.

What else does the far future hold for photographic capture? Signs of it are already here.

One cool imaging innovation just now coming to market is the "living picture" captured by Lytro. This unique camera uses an optical overlay atop the sensor to capture not just the parallel light beams that are used to turn electrically excited pixels' output into a 2-D image, but also the "light field," the rays coming into the camera from multiple angles.

The result is a photo in which you can alter the focal plane at any time after capture. It is something you have to see to understand and appreciate, and it's very cool. But once you do see it a few dozen times, the thrill wears off. It can be fun to click to focus on the flower in the foreground and make the trees in the background blurry, then click to bring the trees into sharp focus and have the flower fall into a nice bokeh blur. But how often are you going to want to do that?

Fortunately, the technology is not just a one-trick pony. The company promises that while the first model captures low-resolution images at standard brightness, future models will improve drastically on both aspects. The instant-light field capture can mean instant autofocus as well. Not only that, the new image capture technique can also yield distance data, meaning that the photo's point of view can be slightly pivoted post-capture, and even a 3-D photo can be discerned from a single exposure. Pretty cool stuff.

That said, the first thing most will notice about the Lytro camera is that it is in effect a handheld tube, like a rectangular Coke can with the lens on one end and an LCD screen on the other.

Ergonomically, this doesn't seem to be a great way to take pictures — and that raises an important question: What is a great way to take pictures? We would argue that holding up anything between yourself and what you want to capture is not ideal.v

How about taking pictures of something that's not even in front of the lens? Recently, there have been some breakthroughs at the MIT Media Lab in the design of a "femtophotography" camera that can see around walls (see Industry News, page 10). Using lasers and unimaginably complex algorithms to deconstruct the background scatter of light, MIT's prototype sensor has been able to trace the rays of an object's reflected light back to its source in a matter of picoseconds (that's a trillionth of a second, mind you) and instantly construct an image from the data. Oh, and it's in 3-D.

That's great news for spy geeks, but what would be ideal for everyday photographers is the ability to mentally "click" at any time and instantly save a wide-angle image of everything in front of us, or zoom in to a tight shot of the exact object at which we are looking.

But until bionic eyes are first possible, then practical and, finally, affordable, such methods are only science fiction. What is today's science fact, however, are cameras embedded in eyeglasses. These are always pointed in the direction of our gaze, and can take a photo with the push of a button on either the glasses or, for example, on a Bluetooth-connected smartphone. We can see the captured image either on a projection overlaid on the glasses or, more near-term, on the phone's screen.

Today these devices are inaccurate, low-resolution, rare and expensive. All of that will change in just a few short years. I expect that soon many of us will not often carry a camera at all — not even a camera phone. We will instead have a device much like today's Bluetooth earpiece, except it will be operated via voice and have a lens protruding slightly past our ear that can capture whatever we see.

Future in motion

In the last decade or so, there has been one major change in still photography: namely, that it is no longer solely about stills. Old camcorders were clunky, rarely used devices, but now everything with a sensor also captures video.

At a recent photography trade show, one of the biggest hits was a demonstration of two tiny helicopters twisting around the show floor at eye level, carrying HD video cameras. Remote-controlled flying cameras and surreptitious surveillance are definitely among the top trends in photography's future, although this technology is not likely to influence your own ability to take still pictures.

Even if you personally savor the solitary still image as the perfect portrayal of a key moment, this trend toward HD video will affect all new photography. Today, expensive professional equipment such as the RED camera captures ultra-high-resolution video at 30 or 60 frames per second — and a perfectly sharp, perfectly focused still image can be pulled from any split second of that video stream. This technological capability will make its way down into much more affordable products in the very near future. This means that a key photographic skill — the ability to identify and capture the key moment — will be obsolete and unnecessary.

And while you might think that you would be overwhelmed by the task of trying to choose one frame from thousands, this is yet another area of imaging in which algorithms will come to your rescue. Push the button, capture a 30-second burst of millions of frames, and then let image processing take over and present you with, say, a dozen or so of the best split seconds. Meanwhile, software can help identify focus, faces, positions and more. It won't quite be doing all your work for you — but, hey, close enough.

Paul Worthington
Story Author: Paul Worthington

Paul Worthington is the consumer imaging analyst for the 6Sight Future of Imaging Conference. He also produces the weekly 6Sight Report and monthly 6Sight Magazine.

Website: 6sightreport.com