Are We There Yet?
Photographer Michael Friedman, writing in a thread called "16.7MP. Now
What?" in the Canon 1D/1Ds forum on dpreview.com, asked what struck me
as a very interesting question. He phrased it much better, of course,
but essentially it was: Are we there yet?
In other words, what more do we need? What improvements come next? What
should camera makers strive for? (He specifically asked people not to
mention price, as we all know we always want things to cost less.)
Most of the responses were in the mo' betta department: still more
megapixels; more dynamic range (DR); bigger sensors; higher sensitivity
and longer exposures with less noise; generally more, more, more, and
better, better, better.
One structural change I'm reasonably sure of is that eventually we'll
lose the reflex mirror. The viewfinder will see what the lens sees, but
not optically. That will merge current SLR through-the-lens advantages
with a live LCD.
Many people have mentioned great DR, and I'm sure that will come. Well,
it may be here, in the Fuji S3, we just don't know yet. We'll find out
in the next month or two.
One thing the market needs (but maybe photographers don't) is greater
simplicity of operation. Many potential buyers are put off by the
complexity of the devices. Kodak is "cutting edge" in this respect with
easy-to-use cameras like its 7440 and the Printer Dock.
Personally, with the major exception of dynamic range, I think they're
already there in the Mo' Bettah department. I.e., for me, cameras have
enough megapixels, cameras are responsive enough, cameras are light
enough, successive exposures are fast enough, files are big enough,
ISOs are high enough. Progress will consist of putting more of these
features into the same camera ( and of course making them less
I've used enough cameras over the years to know what my own "ideal"
parameters are. Obviously these will vary from person to person (with
many "measurebators" just wanting mo' bettah without end), but I know
what I like and need. Here's the list:
- About 11MP. As an artist and fine printer, I want to be
able to print at the highest resolution, 360dpi, without uprezzing. My
largest standard print size is 11 inches in the longer dimension. At an
image size of about 4000 x 2700 pixels, my need for "mo' pixels"
effectively ends. And no, that doesn't mean yours has to —
I'm just speaking for myself.
- A camera about 20 ounces in weight. Smaller and lighter is
better when schlepping, of course, but to me, 20 oz. for the camera
body is the weight I want in my hands when shooting. Substantially more
feels like too much, and substantially less feels, well, insubstantial.
So once a camera is at 20 ounces, my need for lighter weight is at an
- ISO 1600. Realistically, there's a limit to how much
sensitivity one ultimately needs. Very low light is often very crappy
light. In practice, the highest rating I've ever used with film is
1000, and, frankly, it's enough, especially with modern flash options
and anti-shake. So throw in two thirds of a stop more to make the
number nice and round. At ISO 1600, therefore, my need for greater
- 15 second exposures without noise. The longest exposure
I've ever actually used with film is 15 seconds, for a moonlit
"lakescape." Considering that DSLRs offer higher sensitivity than the
Plus-X I was using back then, I don't feel the need for exposures of
- Lens speed of f/2. On film cameras, f/2 is an ideal
compromise between speed, size, and cost. The f/2 lens on the Sony
F-707 I used a couple of years ago was mighty nice to have. But after
they get to f/2, I don't honestly need lenses any faster.
- Lens focal lengths from 18mm to 180mm in 35mm equivalency.
The limits of what I personally use is actually more like 28mm to
150mm, but I realize I'm conservative in this respect. But once a
system offers this range, I'm golden. So call it 18mm to 180mm to take
most other peoples' needs into account. And this is, of course,
assuming that there will always exist lens options up to 600mm
equivalents for those who need them. (I think most of the anguished
wailing from almost-non-photographers claiming they "need" more extreme
focal lengths than digital currently offers is basically just whining
for whining's sake.)
- A battery that lasts as long as I can. I figure I can only
stay awake a certain length of time. If a battery lasts as long as I
do, why do I need more? My longest day is now about 20 hours. Add a
fudge factor again, for younger people who can skip a night (as I used
to do regularly), and call it 36 hours. A battery that lasts for 36
hours with moderate to heavy use is enough for me.
- 5 frames per second. Granted, I'm not a sports or wildlife
shooter. I used "motor-advance" with 35mm mostly as a way of cocking
the camera. Even so, there's a limit to how much "motor drive" speed
most amateur/art photographers really need. I think 5fps is it.
- Same thing goes for buffer depth. Granting that some pros
will want more, I just can't see needing any more than 24 exposures at
a 5fps frame rate. I'd never touch that limit, personally, but it would
be, as they say on the fora, "nice to have."
- Shutter lag of 30 ms and mirror blackout of about 60 ms. I
love responsive cameras, but quicker than that and I can't tell the
difference. Unlike most people, I know this from direct
experimentation. Fast is great, but fast enough is fast enough.
As you can see, what I'm doing here is simply specifying what's
"enough" for me personally. As a consumer, I'm saying I wouldn't be
enticed by (or persuaded to pay for) parameters that exceed what I've
named above. And, as you may have noticed, every single one of the
above parameters has already been met. Not all of them in the same
camera, granted, or with all lenses; but the technology exists.
So what don't we have that I'd like? Not much, friends, not much.
Here's the short list:
- Say 3 stops more dynamic range than DSLRs currently have.
Really 2 would be enough for most situations I can imagine, but call it
3. As I say, we are at this moment awaiting the reviews of the S3 to
see if this, too, is already here.
- Live LCD preview, with a screen that at least articulates
90 degrees upwards so it can be used as a waist-level finder. This is
really the best thing about current high-end digicams (their Achilles'
heels being slow, uncertain AF and higher noise at lower sensitivities
than DSLRs). Sooner or later we'll have it on DSLRs, too, when EVFs get
good enough to replace optical reflex mirror systems.
- Better viewfinders. I've written extensively about SLR
viewfinders here, but suffice to say that most DSLR vf's are relatively
stinky so far. This is an obvious area for future improvement.
Oh, of course there are my own quirky little enthusiasms, which I
realize are pretty fringe. That would be a few f/2 prime (single
focal-length) lenses at the normal to wide end, and dedicated b&w
versions of a couple of mid-range DSLR cameras. The latter would be
simpler, faster, and offer more effective pixels per square mm than
color sensors converted to b&w in software (why? Because all the pixel
sites could record value, instead of devoting two out of every four to
color information). A niche product, for sure, though I do think we'll
get there someday. But these two things, I realize, are pretty far from
what the market as a whole is clamoring for, which is why I left them
off the main list.
And so that's my two cents on the matter. Digital technology is mostly
here today; it's not so much "more and better" that we need, as much as
thoughtful and better integrated blendings of current capabilities into
single cameras. We're certainly getting there fast.
Next week, another "extra" column, essentially Part II of the present
argument: Mike's FULL-FRAME MANIFESTO. (I love it when I get to rant!)
Until then, all best,
Please visit my website at
www.37thframe.com and subscribe to The 37th
Frame photography e-newsletter.
The Quotidian Meander: I now have a non-photographic blog (web log) at:
www.quotidianmeander.blogspot.com. Warning: political content! Warning:
irreligious content! Warning: smart-alecky content! You have been
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly
ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame (
www.37thframe.com). He has a
B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in
Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe
He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and
Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his
editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he
presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John
Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely
discussed among photographers.
His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications
and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his
articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the
English magazine Darkroom User.