The recent surge on megapixel counts in all levels of digital cameras, from modest point-and-shoot all the way through advanced amateur and especially in pro cameras and backs, has users questioning the need for such massive files. Indeed, many have become concerned that their camera is now pushing their computer too hard and that it will actually force them to consider upgrading their laptop or desktop unit—a classic case of the size of the horse determining how large a cart you need to drive.
Some photographers claim that 8 or perhaps 10 megapixels is all they really can use, unless they are prepared to step up from their 13×19-inch to a larger printer, upgrade their storage and backup system and get a faster and more powerful computer. In short, many photographers are beginning to question whether these ever-increasing megapixel cameras are overkill.
This doesn’t apply to the commercial or studio portrait photo professional—in those realms massive files are generally lauded for their flexibility for anything from a double page spread in a magazine to the foundation of a billboard ad campaign, or as a 30×40-inch portrait for the living room wall. No, I’m talking about the enthusiast customer, the one who is going to be putting bread on the table for the photo industry in the years ahead.
As some manufacturers noted at both the photokina and recent Photo Plus trade shows in NYC, the cameras being bought now, and for the next few months, won’t necessarily be for and by the high-end pro, but by the enthusiast who still has disposable income—read professionals, from doctors to middle managers—and those who have saved their money to make the next step up in their cameras.
But what awaits them? We have pushed the megapixel race so far that most amateurs and enthusiasts will be hard pressed to find anything under 10 megapixels out there. We have crammed so many photo sites on small chips that it is now to the point where the image processor is more important than the lens on the camera. Indeed, in the massive megapixel camera realm, there is talk that the optics we have now will not be able to deliver the resolution goods for these high-res sensors, and we will have to either develop an entirely new class of lenses or turn over a good deal of the optical work to image processors.
Part of what spurred this column was a number of letters (OK, e-mails) I recently received after our reporting in Shutterbug on the increasing megapixel counts coming down the pike. Wrote one reader, “Most people, like myself, do not need a file of 70MB since we are not able to keep up with all the additional equipment required for this type of files. Now we are going to need 5TB hard drives to store and work on this stuff! I am in photography to enjoy it and not to support an industry. If I am lucky enough to sell a few photos, great, but lets draw the line somewhere on this technological war between camera manufacturers.”
The infrastructure issue was pointed out in succinct manner by another reader e-mail: “Larger file sizes impact the workflow, computer and network hardware and time devoted to post processing. Time and hardware/network resources for file management and backup will be two to four times greater. A gigabyte network is not out of the question for moving files of this size. But then the hard drive access and write times will be a bottleneck unless increased dramatically.
These are not investments many photographers will want to make on top of the camera and lenses.” In other words, large megapixel cameras are making the present computers, image processing software and storage devices now used by photographers obsolete, and are beginning to force buying decisions that must choose between an extra lens or two and a new computer or storage system.
This “tech fatigue” was the point of another note; “I’m not really awaiting further developments. I’m tired of the ever-increasing computer requirements. Upgrading a camera means upgrading my PC too. I’d prefer more bit depth, better high ISO quality and around 10-11 megapixels. The files sizes are too large for the huge quantities involved.”
Keeping it Simple
What of the family photographer who simply wants snapshots of precious moments for small prints and the Web? While I have never been a fan of camera phones I think that at this point they will become more and more the family camera of choice.
In the past these multi-tasking tools delivered fairly abysmal picture quality, and my objection to them was based on image quality, at least when compared to the average digital point-and-shoot camera that had a decent lens, fair flash, much less image compression and resultant print quality that did not make every line look like a staircase. Now they seem to have enough megapixels, better lens quality and, most importantly, do not burden the user with massive files that complicate what should be a simple task.
Does this mean the end of the point-and-shoot digital camera? Hardly, but as has been seen, other avenues to images have taken a bite out of the point-and-shoot’s market share. Early test results from the new Micro Four Thirds cameras are quite good, and while this is a fascinating trend that will at the least lead us down some fun design paths, I think this will bite into the step-up market rather than grab away integral lens market share.
This also should not touch the “pro travel” integral lens camera market, as represented by the Canon G10 and its ilk, which is more a quality camera used by those who know how to turn the dials and what to do with the image file after it is downloaded. But the blister pack gang might see things change should this megapixel race continue unabated.
The problem is, of course, that cramming ever more megapixels on the relatively tiny chip inside the typical $100-250 digicam yields both diminishing returns in image quality (in anything but bright sunlight) and more intimidating file sizes for users to wrangle. These folks want to make pictures, not take Photoshop workshops or wonder how to unclog the family computer of massive image files. What should be really simple is getting increasingly complicated.
Feeding the Beast
Like the plant in the “Little Shop of Horrors”, the marketing momentum has the latest cameras saying “Feed me, feed me!” but the food here is more megapixels, and the manufacturers don’t seem to know how to keep the ever-growing and voracious omnivore under control.
This would be fine if there weren’t lots of competition out there with devices that not only take pictures but connect you to the Web, take your calls and store your music and movies, plus shoots video clips, but that simply isn’t what the consumer electronics world is up to these days. In short, would you want a 12 megapixel camera that gives you way more information than you need or a multi-tasking communications device that delivers decent image quality that you can upload to a family site while you drive your car or download to your desktop as soon as you walk in the door to your house?
I am not sure if all this means that the photo industry has to become more inclusive or more exclusive in terms of what its devices deliver, and how they deliver it. I leave that to greater minds than my own. But I don’t think there has been a time in this business where the challenge to “traditional” cameras, and the thinking behind them, has ever been greater.