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PMA 2009: Trend Spotting
If phrases like restoring consumer confidence are catchwords around your town, you'll find insprations by the truckload here at the show.
by Don Sutherland

March 3, 2009--Las Vegas/PMA-- Greetings, pilgrim. Did you enjoy your walk to Las Vegas? Did you and the five others sharing your room have a fulfilling discussion about cutbacks? As you passed the boiled egg around for breakfast, did anybody broach the subject of customers buying cameras in this so-called economy? We hope so. Your house may be worth only 60% of what it was at the turn of the century, but the cameras you're selling are worth 200% of what they were.

So if phrases like "restoring consumer confidence" are catchwords around your town, you'll find insprations by the truckload here at the show.

There must be a hundred new point-and-shoots here today, and all of 'em are bristling with new features, new categories of features, that make them resounding values--better values than ever. A 10-megapixel entrycam for under $150? You've gotta be kidding. Canon gets under $130 for their 10MP A-480 camera, in any of four yummy colors. Think of it: ten years ago, a 2-megapixel camera cost 3-times what this little Canon does. And more megapixels is hardly the only trend at the show this year. In fact, you might say that the new trend is ... new trends.

Is there anybody now who doesn't offer some form of image-stabilization? How many water-resistant or toughened, bashproof cameras are now available? Have you counted the number of ultrazoom models, with 20x lenses and higher? HD video--how many "still" cameras now include it, all the way up to 1080p and 16:9 frame format? How about "intelligent exposure," which automatically conducts the mode-setting tasks that customers had to do manually? We used to think a "burst" of frames at 2 per second was quite a feat, but how about 1000 fps? Check with Casio. We used to think a lot of pixels were good, but how about recombinant pixels that can make one out of two? Check with Fujifilm. We used to think of pressing buttons for menu selections, but how about giving the camera a tap or a shake? Check with Olympus and Canon.

Face-detection was pretty much a new thing two shows ago, and now it's hard to find a brand that doesn't include it. At the show this year, it looks like the first time, we also have actual face-recognition. Face-recognition and face-detection are terms sometimes used interchangeably, but they shouldn't be. Face-detection is able to latch-on to faces in general, but face-recognition tracks specific faces--maybe yours, but maybe not mine, because you haven't programmed your camera to recognize me.

Check with Panasonic. They've humorously suggested that face-recognition could be an incentive in family management. You know--"do your homework, or I'll tell the camera to ignore you."

Plain old face-detection is an enormously useful feature for tracking the focus and exposure for the part of a picture most likely to be important--peoples' faces--a virtue that becomes increasingly apparent as lighting contrast goes up. Remember the old backlight-compensation button? Face-detection works better. If the face you adore is in the shade against a sunlit background, face-detection can follow the visage through all kinds of changing light and modify the lens settings as required.

Face-recognition does the same thing, but with greater refinement. If I'm standing in shade and your significant other is standing in a beam of light, face-recognition will ignore me (until you program me in) and latch onto the face you prefer (and have stored in the camera's memory system). Is this an important step forward? Don't ask me, Im single. Ask yourself: is avoiding a divorce an important step?

Smart CCD tricks.

Of all the publications now serving the photo industry, Photo Trade News was by far the first to identify Fujifilm's Super CCD technology as a winner. Skepticism was the initial reaction of many to Fuji's claims for the new imager design, and as so frequently happens in the internet age, the cyber-Einsteins recited their lists of why the technology couldn't possibly be everything the manufacturer said. After about a year, when the rest of the world did what we had done--that is, actually use Super CCD-equipped cameras--people in general started thinking maybe Fuji was on to something after all.

Super CCD technology has continued developing, and the latest version at the show today does some intriguing tricks. In its latest version their EXR technology starts with a 12-megapixel imager whose pixels can be merged, two into one, resulting in six million extra-large pixels. Fuji calls it Pixel Fusion Mode, and you'll find it oven-fresh at the show, in the Finepix F200EXR.

The maximum ISO equivalency of this camera is a whopping 12,800. Extremely high sensitivity like that usually is accompanied by an increase in picture noise, sometimes rendering an image almost unusable. But all other things equal, a larger pixel is less susceptible to noise. So, although we haven't had a chance to try the new camera yet, were guessing that its performance in very low light will be extra-good.

Dual Capture also expands dynamic range by reconfiguring the 12-million pixels yet another way, creating two 6-megapixel exposures at the same time, each with different exposure characteristics. The two are combined together, producing a result that has better detail in both the highlights and the shadows of the picture.

Sophisticated photographers using conventional cameras have done something similar in Photoshop, merging two versions of a picture into one, each with different exposure characteristics. But in that method, the subject pretty much has to be a still-life--anything that moves may appear twice in the final result. To our knowledge, this is the first time the procedure is available in a P&S camera.

Also to double your fun, the camera employs Fujifilm's Dual Shot Mode--each picture is taken twice in rapid succession, one with flash and one without. You decide which one looks better, and go on from there. The 5x zoom lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.3, and zooms-out to a wide-angle equivalency of 28mm. MSRP is $399. Another "reinvention" of the digital imager was produced by Foveon, whose CCDs appeared in Sigma's cameras--and is now owned by the camera maker. While the internet geniuses again fill the cybosphere with "mathematical proof" that the imager can't be as good as advocates say, what we say is "wow." Those are some beautifully detailed, distinctively colored pictures it makes. Sigma's second entry-level P&S, the DP-2, is at the show today. It has a 40mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens, faster and a little less wide-angle than the DP-1's, and employs a faster processing engine. It still offers 14-million of the Foveon distinctive X3 pixels.

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