Sunday, February 7, 2016

Digital Camera Technology Is On The Precipice of Change

The Closed Road - Fish Camp, California
Captured using a cell phone.
Digital camera technology has come a million miles in the last 20 years. Cameras have improved by leaps and bounds in every way imaginable. It's to the point that your cell phone camera can produce image quality that's just as good or even better than a DSLR from two decades ago.

It's easy to think that we've arrived at or near the pinnacle of digital photo technology. Where do things go from here?

I believe digital cameras are about to change. I think digital photography technology is about to transform dramatically.

Last year MIT scientists figured how to create a camera that can fully recover blown highlights. It's pretty simple, really--nothing more than a software trick. Once a light sensor ("pixel") has received enough light data to be a blown highlight, the sensor starts over at zero recording new light data, and the software remembers that it did this. Basically, it allows you to overexpose as much as you'd like, and recover the blown highlights when post-processing the RAW files.

It's just a matter of time before Sony, Nikon, Canon, etc., figure out how to incorporate this into their cameras. Soon blown highlights will be a thing of the past.

Meanwhile Panasonic claims to have invented a sensor that has 100 times greater dynamic range than other sensors. You'll be able to retain both highlight and shadow details in high-contrast situations. I read how this works (how Panasonic was able to accomplish this) several times but still don't really understand it. However they did it, it's a pretty amazing feat.

There have been several sensors made recently (including one by Panasonic) that can basically see in the dark. With only moonlight you can capture a useable photograph with the camera handheld. Tripods will be a thing of the past, and dark situations won't be a problem.
Rock Behind Ice Plant - Morro Bay, California
Captured using a multi-layer sensor camera.
Sigma has been using multi-layered sensors for years, but they really haven't had the resources to bring this technology to the mainstream. Canon has the resources and they're about to release a multi-layered sensor camera. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this.

With circuitry becoming smaller, we're beginning to see sensors with more integrated circuitry, allowing for quicker operations. Combine this with mirrorless cameras and advances in autofocus, cameras will be quicker than any photographer needs them to be. Spray-and-pray will be brought to a whole new level.

There are cameras that allow you to adjust depth-of-field after the exposure. There are cameras that automatically and seamlessly stitch multiple exposures into one image. All sorts of crazy ideas are being turned into actual products.

And megapixel counts keep rising. It wasn't all that long ago that 12 megapixels was thought to be the practical limit. Now you can buy a 100 megapixel camera--12 megapixels seems like nothing. You can record tiny details that you'd only notice with large prints or big crops.

In five years I think digital cameras will perform much differently than today. It's difficult to predict which new technologies will stick and which will fade and be forgotten. I think dynamic range will increase tremendously. I think high-ISO will also improve by large margins. Cameras will get faster and faster. Resolution will increase, but I think people will figure out that they don't need 100 megapixels or even 50 megapixels. Cameras will get smaller and lighter. The tradition single-lens reflex will become less common.

All of the changes and advancements will be exciting to see. But no advancement in camera technology will make anyone a better photographer. Great pictures always start with photographic vision. Gear is not as important as people often think it is.

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