Wins and Losses
The market is speaking, and it seems to be saying this: The Canon 5D and Nikon D200 are all but taking over as the "effective flagships" of their respective lines, by offering ~85% of the performance of the cost-no-object pro 1Ds mk. II and D2x cameras in substantially lighter, handier, and less expensive bodies. Another down-shift in the camera market? Perhaps.
"Smaller, lighter, and less expensive" are surely things that the pro and advanced amateur camera markets have been asking for, and there is almost nothing that professionals have asked for from digital cameras in recent years that they have not gotten: ever-increasing megapixels, better and better high-ISO performance, larger and more reliable cards, longer battery life, improved responsiveness, deeper and faster buffers—and lower prices.
All that is good, but is all good? Not quite all. As with any emerging technology, there are substantial "accidents" in the market as well: ways in which the market evolves that are neither intelligent nor guided strictly by demand (or else guided by demand that is partly wrongheaded, for example, the "full-frame sensor" shibboleth). Some factors remain "hidden" or "masked" and are neglected, while others become prominent and therefore get attention.
An example of the latter is something I've been saying for a number of years now, which is that photographers should thank their lucky stars for the extremely poor longevity of early inkjet prints. What that did was shine the spotlight of consumer attention on print life expectancy (LE) and force the manufacturers to address the issue. (The presence and the influence of longtime industry gadfly Henry Wilhelm was a significant factor in our favor as well.) We have been rewarded by forthright competition in this respect, which has produced excellence: the best inkjet printers and ink/paper combinations are now surpassing the best-case LE for color photographs, historically, and are beginning to effectively rival even black-and-white print LEs. Bravo. Had early inkjet prints commonly had LE's of, say, 20-30 years, no one would ever have paid any attention to it and we'd probably still be stuck with those numbers today.
But there are ways in which we lose, too. Sensor manufacture (and/or access to same) has introduced a new bottleneck into production and profitability that has forced several longtime cameramakers to quit the field. Dynamic range has not received adequate attention. Standardization, despite the heroic efforts of Olympus (and the recent bright spot provided by Panasonic and Leica), has stumbled. Black-and-white printers continue to be an afterthought, with ultimate quality that is as far behind traditional black-and-white as the quality of digital color is ahead of traditional color.
One mechanism by which we lose—or get on to a losing track—is that market failures tend to have a disproportionate effect on their underlying technical ideas, even though those ideas may be sound ones, and even though the failures of the product in question might have had nothing to do with the viability of the idea. For instance, one way in which are losing is that so far, pocket cameras are being made exclusively with tiny sensors. If Sony's R-1 fails (I have no idea how well it's selling), then the supply side—ever "conservative," a.k.a. skittish—will conclude that large sensors in fixed-lens cameras are a bust, and will continue the arbitrary current schism between small-sensor digicams and large-sensor DSLRs (created in the first place largely because pocket camera buyers are simply ignorant of the issue of sensor size altogether).
Another example: Fuji's failure with the extended-dynamic-range sensor in the S3. Fuji's SuperCCD SR II sensor was a step in the right direction, but its advantages weren't decisive enough to overcome the S3's comparative insufficiencies and its laggard entry into its niche. This has both hurt Fuji and given extended-dynamic-range sensors a bad name, to our detriment. (It's possible that Olympus's live-view LCD in the E-330 may mete a similar fate to live-view LCDs in general, although it's too early to know.)
What I would like to see in the digital camera market in the future is essentially:
I. Mass-market amateur and pocket cameras:
---1. small-sensor designs (as currently proliferate)
---2. APS-C (1.5x) designs (currently nonexistent)
II. Premium, professional, and advanced amateur cameras:
---1. APS-C (1.5x) and 4/3rds designs
------a. fixed-prime-lensed (currently nonexistent)
------b. fixed-zoom-lensed (only one exists as of 5/2006)
------c. rangefinder-type (only one exists as of 5/2006)
------d. live-view DSLRs (only one exists as of 5/2006)
------e. conventional DSLRs
---2. "645" (i.e., larger than 24x36mm) sensor designs of 16+ MP
Whether the markets evolve that way remains to be seen.
The situation with regard to sensor sizes, lens coverage, dust, lens size, IS/VR/AS, and lens cross-platform interchangeability is still volatile and fluctuating, but one pattern that is emerging is that we are simply not going to get adequate lines or ranges of prime (single-focal-length) lenses in most digital systems. This is due to two things. First, legacy 35mm lenses can be used. And second, because of one of those "hidden" factors I mentioned earlier: flange distance. In Canon, Nikon, Pentax and presumably the upcoming Sony (from Minolta) DSLRs, flange distance is a legacy specification, a holdover from 35mm. It means that fast prime lenses will still need to be more or less as big and heavy as 35mm versions, and have objectives [think "filter size"] that are more or less as large, despite the smaller coverages.
This is a loss. Many legacy 35mm primes are not quite adequate for several reasons—one of which is that digital lenses need to be coated differently. Digital sensors are much more reflective than film, so lenses for digital need to be coated against light impinging from the back as well as from the front, not just from the front. This is why "digital ready" actually means more when referring to lenses than it did to, say, stereo speakers.
Win some, lose some.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, tip o' the hat to O.G. and C.W.
A bit of a cranky, curmudgeonly aside: Please don't comment on this post unless you have first bothered to peruse it. Skimming content on the web is a regrettable necessity, but it often leads people to reach "closure" too easily. ("Closure" might be defined as the premature shutting-down of input in response to the belief that the input is understood.) It was harder for me to write this than it is for you to read it, so comments responding to what you think I said rather than what I actually said will be given somewhat less toleration than usual, if only because I don't feel like responding in detail to misreadings. Yeah, I know, I'm a grumpy old man.