The race for more pixels has hit the wall—hopefully, for good
With every new fall lineup compact digital camera announcement this summer, it has become clearer that camera makers may have finally realized what we in the photo industry press have been saying for years: That we reached the maximum number of pixels necessary for 11x14 prints long ago, and all these extra pixels are unnecessary and a waste of processing power.
I don't want to say "I told you so," but...
I’ve been ranting about Megapixel Madness for years. I’ve run comparison tests demonstrating how high ISO, low light and compact cameras don’t mix because they produce such excessive grain. I provided compact camera digital image quality overviews, showed how you can only get decent sharpness at low ISOs, and that image quality goes south at a remarkably low ISO. I pointed people to 6mpixel.org, an organization which proved that the best overall image quality for an 8x10 print can be achieved with a 6MP compact camera and is doing important work providing resources for compact camera makers to improve image quality.
By the way, 95 percent of all photographic prints are 4x6 inches. Therefore, even 6MP is more than enough for 95 percent of all photography.
Look at the difference at ISO 800 between an image shot with an 8MP compact camera, left, and an 8MP DSLR, right (both examples are full-size detail enlargements). Too many pixels and not enough room will do that to an image. Are camera makers finally catching on? Maybe.
While the typical pixel count is still unnecessarily high (most new compact digital cameras have 10-12MP resolution), with this summer’s crop just about complete, it is very good news that the pixel counts didn’t creep even higher. Then, this week, I got even better news: The Canon G11 was announced with a 10MP sensor. That’s significantly fewer pixels than its predecessor, the G10, which has a 14.7MP sensor that produced golf ball-sized digital grain at ISO 400 and processed slowly. While I haven't gotten the word officially from Canon, the street buzz is that Canon realized that the higher resolution sensor was bogging down processing speed, and that features and performance improvements would make their flagship compact camera more useful. Good for them!
Other camera makers, including Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, Sony, Nikon and others, have restrained themselves, announcing 10 and 12MP compact digital cameras, but nothing beyond that. Many of these same companies have instead announced image quality improvements in low light and higher ISO settings. A welcome pattern is emerging.
Feeling the squeeze
Finally realizing the physical limitations of squeezing more and more millions of pixels onto a thumbnail-sized chip, camera makers are now loading cameras with features, some of which may actually be useful. Advances in face recognition will let users tag their favorite people so the camera will prioritize focus on familiar faces—even if those faces are at a 90 degree angle to the camera, or if those faces happen to include the family pooch. Focus tracking, intelligent autoexposure, smile and blink detection will also help the snapshooter.
On-board image processing software is being fine-tuned to improve grain at higher speeds using new and improved methods, such as merging adjacent similar pixels or combining two or more images. Several cameras claim stretched dynamic range, either through software compensation or by combining multiple, automatically bracketed exposures in camera. With improvements in transfer rates over the last couple of years, I’m also hoping to see improvements in the time it takes to transfer an image to a memory card and a decrease in lag time.
Of course, I could be wrong about this. It's possible that the world financial meltdown has caused camera makers to cut back on R&D and pixel count increases are the main "casualty." But with so many other innovations being announced, I don't think that's the case.
If recent camera announcements spell the end of the Megapixel race, that would be welcome news indeed. Consumers have become more savvy about the role of pixels and it’s about time camera companies started working on more useful improvements.
The next step: Let's eliminate lag time
Especially lag time. I think the goal for the next generation of compact digital cameras should be Zero lag time. Lag time is as maddening as it is commonplace. Even a lag time of 0.3 sec, the new “fast” standard, is too long a lag time when photographing an active child, pet, or impatient family members. Cut it to 0.0 sec. Then we’ve got something great to talk about.