Magazine Article


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

But does it? Techniques are improving, some more than others. Advances in imager design could improve signal-to-noise ratio, with processing routines forming a stopgap (they can eliminate the appearance of noise, but can't perfectly reconstruct picture information originally corrupted by said noise). The existence (or not) of a penalty for pixels will probably be a story to follow this year, as will image quality in general—both Canon and Sigma are claiming bar-raisings on that one.

More definite among trade-offs, and more likely to evoke questions from shoppers, is face-detection, say, versus a live-view monitor in a DSLR. There isn't yet one camera that combines all three features, though it would be nice if there were.

Face detection was sometimes mislabeled as face recognition at the show, but there's an important difference. Face recognition refers to a system that can tell that I'm me and you're you, and we aren't the same. The new cameras don't do that. They simply take note when there are faces in the scene, lock onto them, and track them. Anybody's face will do.

With both in-house systems and third-party solutions (like FotoNation) to choose from, manufacturers could well make face detection the next big standard. Depending upon how it is implemented, it could make some serious improvements to the practice of photography and the results it produces.

At its most useful, face detection becomes an extension of the meter-pattern switch that has been built into cameras since the 1980s or so. By this switch, a spot, center-weighted, or multi-part full-frame metering pattern could be selected, accommodating different conditions of lighting and contrast. The face-detection principle is frequently described as the guiding factor in exposure control—the system locates the faces, then calculates exposure readings and/or flash output to suit. Think of it as a spot meter, or up to nine spot meters in the Fujifilm case, that can follow the subject as it moves around the frame.

How to break it to customers that at this moment, as far as we've come, no one can yet buy a camera with everything? Tell 'em they're working on it. Tell 'em maybe they should think about buying two cameras. Lots of people do.

In the Chips

As expected, the subject of imaging chips came up at PMA '07, a bit more broadly than expected. The Sigma SD14, so widely discussed in last autumn's photokina reports, was declared ready to ship as of the show. As the vessel containing the Foveon X3 imager, the Sigma DSLR has always been good fodder for discussion.

The number of pixels for the SD14's imager is stated as over 14 million, but they're differently designed than the pixels of all other imaging chips. At the show, this revived the question of "what is a pixel?" along with "how do conventional imaging chips (the ones with Bayer or Bayerlike patterns) deliver pictures of the particular sizes they do?"

Opinions are raging in all quarters, and there are no scientists here to put in a comment—we're all dreamers today, remember? But based upon the review sample received just before the show, the SD14 can produce a spectacular picture. Its capacity for detail is astonishing, the colors are rich and clean, and the dark areas of certain test pictures made at ISO 800 showed no noise whatsoever. There's much more testing required, and you'll find a full report here soon enough.

Canon also had an imager story for their new EOS-1D Mark III, receiving as much or more space in a white paper of theirs as the features described here so far. In a nutshell, Canon describes a more efficient imager design that harvests more of the light reaching the sensor, improving optical performance all around. With a burst rate of 15 fps for raw files, helped along by a dual Digic III processor system and a rugged construction, the Mark III is clearly intended for the real world at its worst.
Canon strutted their imaging stuff in the sincerest way at the show, with a bodacious dinner celebrating the 20th year of the EOS line. Those in attendance received a small gift upon leaving, a Rebel XTi with no return date.

It provided my first usage of this latest of Rebels, and wow, what a great little camera. Tests again are ongoing, but some of its pictures are outstandingly well-detailed. I liked it so much, I actually went out and bought some new lenses for it. With my own money.

What's that, you say? A writer actually spent money? On products? That's something manufacturers wouldn't dream of in a million years.