The next killer must-have camera feature

The Nikon E2s, a 1.3 Megapixel camera selling for $20,000 in 1995. What's changed since then?

The Nikon E2s, a 1.3 Megapixel camera selling for $20,000 in 1995. What's changed since then?

My housemate just walked into my room asking whether he should get the new iPhone 3Gs. He added “and it has a better camera: 3 megapixel instead of the 2 of the old one”. And this is coming from a very intelligent and technically educated person, which just shows how effectively the marketing guys mess with our minds. Three is better than two if you have a good lens and sufficient sensor size – but not here where probably neither improved since the older model.

In my post called “The Megapixel Race to nowhere” I talked at length about how the camera manufacturers are deceiving us by putting those stickers with “12 Megapixels” on cameras which take pictures which look crappy even when rescaled to a measly 300×300 pixels. Yes, the photo shown in that link was taken with a 12 megapixel camera. And yes, it looks crappy.  Compare that with this photograph taken with a 3.1 megapixel camera using technology of 7 years earlier. There are several reasons why this photograph taken by a new 12 megapixel camera looks so  bad compared to the older one – I won’t go into those reasons here, but suffice to say that the reason for the latter’s superiority lies not in the number of megapixels.

Luckily, it seems that now that most cameras have hit the 10 megapixel mark there has been a bit of a sanity check. The tag lines used to convince us to part with our hard-earned money focus on other features – and some of them are even useful! A killer feature is a feature that changes the way you use a piece of technology, or substantially improves the results you get from it.

Here’s a rough summary of the features which shaped digital camera evolution since the turn of the century:

  • 2000-2005: More megapixels (Yes, with a big enough sensor and good enough lens you did gain from more megapixels, up to a point), and faster operation (very important)
  • 2005-2006: Although it existed for some time, image stabilisation became all the rage, and everyone had to have it. Now widely available across multiple manufacturers. Very useful, too!
  • 2007: Automatic face detection hit the market. This is actually a very impressive technical feat, and useful for happy snappy auto-mode cameras, but not a big deal for people who carefully compose their pictures.
  • 2008: High ISO. Every camera now suddenly bragged about ISO 3200. Without better sensors (as is often the case) you just get an incredibly noisy and useless image. No good.
  • 2008: Live view and video recording on digital SLR cameras. Very useful!
  • 2008-2009: Wide angle. Gone are the days of zoom ranges starting at 35mm equivalent. Everyone now wants 28mm or even wider at the wide end. While some lens manufacturers struggle to give good quality at these wide settings it is very useful and nice to have!
  • 2008-2009: HD Video. Nice.
  • 2009: Waterproof/rugged: There used to be some cameras like these in the old film days, but now several manufacturers offering models which are 5-10m waterproof and can take a few knocks. Useful for the adventurous.

I’m sure the following years will give us some more gimmicks and truly useful features? Here are a few of my guesses:

  • GPS for location-tagging (some cameras already have this, but it’s rare)
  • Higher dynamic range (capturing darker and brighter areas simultaneously) – will be very useful
  • Direct upload to flickr / facebook / youtube? (a bit gimmicky)
  • Large touch-screen operation (also a bit gimmicky – buttons are faster and more reliable)
  • Software-based in-camera correction of lens distortion (already being done by Panasonic and Nikon)
  • Super-high frame rates for super-slow-mo videos (think 1000fps)
  • Software-based image stabilisation
  • In-camera image stacking for lower noise
  • Exotic multispectral, infra-red and ultraviolet photography modes (this one’s for the geeks)
  • Real-time photo stitching to create panoramas (already seen in some models) and creation of 3D models (a bit further off?)

Which ones do you think will make it? What did I miss?

To summarise, it seems like the innovation engine of the camera industry is still cranking out new features, despite the economic turmoil. And this is good for us, the consumers. As a good friend pointed out in his blog: “Innovation is hardly ever about coming up with something completely new. That sometimes does happen, but is a fluke”.  Most of these “killer features” have existed for some time. Heck, electric cars were already driving around in 1830, yes the eighteen-30s. But it took new technology to make it practical.  Things are still changing, and I’m not getting bored yet!