Magazine Article


The Power of Prosumer Cameras

Tomorrow's Questions Answered Today in Latest All-In-One Prosumer Digitals

When the first consumer-market digicams came flooding through the sluices of 1996, they brought with them a simple ambition: to do what cameras had always done, except with a digital recording. To this end, many of the most popular simply emulated 35mm models of the day, with their established design traditions.

Today's snapshot cameras though have become the most advanced picture-taking devices in history. Their raw versatility and master-of-all capability exceeds even professional cameras on the market in that watershed year of 1996. Histograms? Who heard of in-camera histograms back in the 20th century (besides folks using the $15k digital SLRs of the time)? ISO sensitivity adjustable from frame to frame? Not in 1995. ISO sensitivity was adjustable from roll to roll, so you were stuck, across 24 to 36 frames, with a single range of EVs (exposure values) and a single rendition of grain (or noise) until you reloaded. On most digicams nowadays, you can set the optimum values—or experiment—as seems befitting every picture you take.

White-balance adjustable from frame to frame? Not in 1995. This, too, came by the rollful, and you had only two choices: "Daylight" and "Tungsten" balance. Some digicams today offer four, five, even six different renditions of overall color balance—again, for every picture you take.

Uninterrupted shooting, forever, continuously? Not in 1995. You had twenty-four to thirty-six pictures to shoot, and then you had to stop. Quarter-, half-, and one-gigabyte memory cards now cost the equivalent of a few rolls of film, but hold hundreds to thousands of JPEGs apiece. And for those with a real trigger-finger, Lexar's 8GB CompactFlash card has been shipping for months, now.

These are a few—just scratching the surface—of the things no one could do with any camera that was sold in 1995. We'll continue compiling new features a few paragraphs hence.

The Nikon Coolpix 8800 (above) with its 10x zoom and 8MP imager and the Olympus 7070 (above) with its 27mm wide-angle lens push the limits of the prosumer category.

Ever Upward

The latest technical wonders are not mere gimcracks stuck-in to glitzify high-tech. They're serious resources that help optimize photography—that is, to assist in making the most perfect pictures, fine-tuned to each individual subject. Will everyone take advantage of all these refinements? Probably not. Nor do they have to. At their most restricted, today's digicams are as effective at taking pictures as the most flamboyant that 1995 money could buy.

From the beginning, the largest number of digicams followed traditional lines—the first Epson, Fujifilm, HP, Kodak, Panasonic, and Pentax offerings looked like modernistic expressions of the familiar. They still do. It was commonly said, if not commonly shown, that consumers were intimidated by designs that were "too" new. The early adopters may have loved twisting their cameras into new shapes, but the camera makers were courting the mass market. They were quite sure that just-regular-folks wanted ease and simplicity, and their quantum leaps in small doses.

Sony still makes their pivoting-viewfinder (or is it a pivoting lens?) camera, the DSC-F828, which has evolved into a serious-looking 8MP machine. But when Nikon showed all their forthcoming new models scheduled between now and the Spring, there wasn't a pivoting lens among them. Agfa and Ricoh no longer offer cameras in the U.S., and even Casio is concentrating more on small-and-chic than exotic. Minolta, which somewhat dropped off the screen after discontinuing its second detachable-lens camera around 2000, was back in 2001 with the Dimage 7 on its high end—a very handsome and flexible camera, but visually in the tradition of the 35. The dashing new promise of redesigned cameras seems to have been shelved, for the time being at least.

Or has it? The articulated LCD viewfinder first seen in consumercams in that first Ricoh (and in TV and video camcorders going back twenty years previous) has gone through various upgrades, enabling it to swing around in almost any direction. The Canon PowerShot Pro 70 led the pack with this feature, quickly joined by Nikon, Minolta, and, with increasing flexibility, leaping to Olympus.

So although they don't look so radical, today's high-end consumercams have most of the extravagant physical adaptability that the avant-garde did nine years ago. It's a new world of picture-taking, and some of it almost snuck up on us.

What's In a Name?

If a camera, even an entry-level camera, has features that professionals can use, why can't it be called a "professional camera?" What is a "professional camera," anyway? We've tossed this around before, and come to the conclusion that a "professional camera" can be whatever you want it to be. Manufacturers make their own decisions about which of their models to call "pro," using inconsistent criteria. We can perhaps intuitively decide when a camera isn't "professional," but having done so we still face trying to define our terms without a formal dictionary.

Fujifilm, which arguably set the standard for prosumer design in 2001 with the 6800 Zoom, has the S20 as its latest prosumer offering. The Konica Minolta A200 boasts anti-shake technology and an 8MP imager in a simplified body.

If "professional camera" is slippery to define, hang on to your hats. The industry has come up with a new word, "prosumer." Now what in the name of Noah Webster is that?

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