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Editorial: I've changed my mind--keep the megapixel madness going!

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Editorial: I've changed my mind--keep the megapixel madness going!

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February 1, 2008

I have been writing ad nauseum about how too many pixels in a compact camera is not a good thing; recently, an organization has tested out camera performance at different megapixels and has determined that below 6 megapixels, there isn't enough enlarging power, and images may be pixellated, but in cameras with sensors 6 megapixels (which covers basically every digital compact camera currently on the market), overall image quality suffers due to digital noise that is added by squeezing too many pixels into too small a space. The conclusion? 6 megapixels is the ideal number for any compact digital camera, according to 6mpixel.org. I agree.

But while chatting with some colleagues in the PMA press room yesterday, I had an epiphany. I've changed my mind, and these 12MP compact monstrosities camera manufacturers are trying to convince the uneducated public are what they should buy are, in fact, a good thing for Photography. Yes, this is a complete 180.

My brain hurts

I had just come from a tour of FotoNation's latest technology, and my mind was abuzz with what I saw. Fotonation is, as far as I could see, a bunch of MIT grads and Russian expat geniouses who invented face recognition, which took the world by storm last year and is now a compact digital camera default feature.

They showed me what's next: Smile detection, blink detection (it beeps a warning if someone blinked in the photo just shot), even the ability to turn photos exibiting camera shake into sharp, clear images after the fact! Lots of digital noise? They've figured out a way to get rid of most of it. Camera misled by strong backliting, obscuring subject detail? A thing of the past.

I walked out of the meeting, reeling. Then the big news hit the press room: FotoNation has been bought by Tessera Corporation, a company I'd never heard of. But it turns out they are a leader in miniaturization technology in the electronics industry, and have Big Bucks. Put two and two together and you have the makings of an irresistible force in the photo industry.

What do all these technical wonders--which may all be in compact cameras by next year--have to do with too many pixels squeezed into too-small cameras and the world of photography?

And what are professional and "serious" photographers, who have invested a substantial amount of time learning to take sharp, well-exposed images and avoid the kinds of photographic technical errors these innovations claim to correct, supposed to think about this?

Here's where my epiphany kicked in.

The real edge is not technical

First off, pro shooters and amateurs should continue to learn and practice good exposure, composition, lighting techniques. The imminent introduction of these posterior-saving features into cameras is no excuse for laziness.

Secondly, good photographers know there's something they've got that most compact camera users generally don't have and never will: the ability to see and compose, to find the right light, the right moment in the action, and the knowledge to select one of the many "correct" exposure, lighting and focus options available to them that is artistically, creatively pleasing and speaks to the viewer's emotions and sense of beauty. It's all up here (see the author tapping his head).

No matter how many truly amazing technologies are added to snapshot cameras, all the typical user will get out of them is, well, snapshots. They might be better exposed or sharper with this technology, but they will still be nothing more than snapshots. A relative handful of photographers who know what they're doing will take advantage of the technical benefits, but these will be in cameras that they're likely to consider backups to their big (and more capable) DSLR rigs.

And so, with that in mind, and with the typical consumer not really all that descerning about overall image quality, what does it matter if the camera is a 12MP camera producing noise the visual equivalent a jackhammer? Maybe less than we think. Maybe, at 4x6 inches (the size of over 95 percent of all prints ordered), the deterioration from 6MP to 12MP would hardly be noticed, and will be even less noticeable next year when FotoNation's anti-grain magic will inevitably appear in darn near every compact camera.

Knowledge will always win over tech fixes

So how are 8, 9, 10, or 12-megapixel compact cameras good for photography? Because anyone who is carrying an overpixellated compact is automatically tagged as a gullible snapshooter. They deserve all the grain they get. It'll make those of us who understand and care about photographic quality look that much better.

And because we, the hobbyists, enthusiasts, and professionals, know the difference a larger sensor can make, and the benefits of shooting at a lower ISO with a tripod when possible, and we understand how apertures and shutter speeds work together to afffect an image, our pictures will be better than theirs, no matter what technical whistles they have.

Macciavelian? You bet.

But it's also reassuring. Let the consumers have better looking snapshots. We'll keep on inspiring each other to greater photographic heights the old fashioned way. (And if you're a snapshooter who has finally noticed all that grain, it's never to late to switch over to the Force.)

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