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PMA '07: The Camera Reinvented


Tom Shay
It's 1992, and Tom Shay has a secret—one he can hardly keep to himself. It's something Fujifilm has been developing in Japan, and Tom calls it "a digital camera." Judging from his expression, Tom sees a great future for it. Tom's own future was pretty good too. Tom has announced his retirement. He hasn't changed much since '92, though cameras have considerably, a condition he had his hand in. It's been great fun Tom, thanks.
Photo by Don Sutherland


Olympus E-410
Olympus E-410
Olympus E-510
Olympus E-510
Canon
Canon

Friends of mine recently visited the historic home of Washington Irving, author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow "(a.k.a., "The Headless Horseman") and "Rip Van Winkle" (a.k.a., "What a Difference a Decade or Two Makes"). The old house stands in a town just north of the Big Apple, called Irvington-on-Hudson. Irvington, get it? Down in the core of the Apple itself, an address on Irving Place has always reflected the best of taste. Impressed by the lasting impact of a writer (as well as his nobility of character and generosity of heart, characteristics of nearly all writers), my friends asked me why I, like this author of yore, couldn't develop my own Rip Van Winkle.

My reply was reflexive, but not bad for short notice: "Because nobody today would accept the idea, even presented as fiction, that it takes 20 long years for the whole world to change."

And then I flew off to the PMA show.

What happened to Rip is, he fell asleep for 20 years, woke up at last, and hobbled back to town. Therein, he found things changed. But it was still pretty much the same town.

What happened at PMA was, the whole town's been rebuilt and nobody's slept through it. It has unfolded before our very eyes.

Twenty years of change? Heck, 10 years ago, a digicam was still an overpriced point & shoot that took crummy pictures, still yearning for the megapixel imager to deliver its salvation.

PMA '07? To put it in a nutshell, the camera's been reinvented. It still draws with light, the basis of photography. But how it goes about the task and what it permits to happen are subjects erupting with transformation.

Not Your Father's Digicam

The transforming eruptions take the form of new technical features, in a half-dozen-or-so major improvements that you wouldn't have come up with in 20 years of your wildest dreams. In-camera image stabilization, live-view DSLR monitor output, and dust-reduction systems are all serious features with quite useful effects, which did not appear in old Rip's slumbers even five years ago.

Now all three of these come in different brands, sometimes using different patents and different trade names to boot. As of the show, we find dust-reduction in Olympus (it started in the E-1), Pentax (K10D), and Canon (Rebel XTi and—in the blowaway camera at the show—the EOS-1D Mark III), all with their competitive claims. Is this how features become standards, or what?

Live-view DSLR monitors took their first baby steps in the Fujifilm FinePix Pro S3, with limitations in usage. It's to be upgraded in the S5, Fujifilm reps have stated, but in the meantime it erupted in full blossom at last year's show in the Olympus Evolt E-330. A succession of newer Evolt models has come with the live view feature, including two new ones announced at the show (the E-410 and E-510). Panasonic and Leica cousins of the Olympus share the live view, and with the Mark III, so does Canon. Is this an endorsement or what?

Image stabilization by means of a moving imager system made PTN's front page in October 2004 in the Minolta Maxxum 7D. It was refined for the Sony Alpha DSLR, Sony informs us, and by showtime last year was announced for the Pentax K100D (still shipping, while the more recent K10D also includes the feature). At the PMA show this year, a third variation arrived in the Olympus Evolt E-510, the first DSLR to provide all three new systems—live-view monitor, dust reduction, image stabilization. Is this a trend or what?

But being trends, these three features have been around awhile—a whole year now, in some cases. At the present rate of development, that makes 'em traditional.

Today's Totalcam

Among cameras mostly outside the DSLR group, additional new trends were exploding at the show. If any one camera had all that was offered, it would have everything the Olympus E-510 has, plus face-detection (Fuji had the max, with a nine-face capacity), a super-high zoom range (Olympus takes the ribbon this year, with 18x in their SP-550UZ, although Sony showed a 15x and Panasonic showed a couple of 12x models, and Canon a new 10x) and some form of automatic ISO boost (up to ISO 6000 in the EOS Mark III, followed-up by ISO 5000 in Olympus' SP-550UZ) coupled with noise-reduction processing routines (shown by Fuji, Panasonic, and Pentax-made cameras with ranges as high as ISO 1600 to 3200). That would make one heck of a camera, the one that tied all this together. We might dream for awhile before seeing it, but probably not 20 years.

Another more-or-less standard across brands and cameras is the 10MP imager, in P&S and DSLRs (all the newest sub-$1k models these days, to say nothing of the Mark III), made in APS-C and APS-H sizes as well as Four Thirds (Evolts 410, 510).

Most manufacturers have 8MP and/or 6MP models in their current lines as well, the 10MP having become the standard in the time since PMA '06. While there's no question that the extra pixels are useful, investigations are ongoing as to whether there's a trade-off. In theory (with notable exceptions, coming up shortly), 10 million pixels on a given size chip would have to be smaller, individually, than 6 million pixels on the same chip. So, in theory, the 10MP chip could make a noisier picture than a 6MP chip would, all other things equal.

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