What's the Purpose of Advanced Technology in P&S Cameras?
by Oren Grad
I think Mike's classification of the purposes of camera technology didn't get it quite right, especially his first two points. The problems of ease, speed and simplicity of use were largely solved long ago, with the original Kodak camera of 1888: "you push the button, we do the rest". My 127-format Brownie Fiesta R4 camera, 80 years later, was every bit as simple. With fixed focus, fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed, there was nothing to do but point the camera and push the button. (OK, you had to decide whether to use a flashcube. But not really: the rigid rule was, indoor=flashcube, outdoor=no flashcube.)
What added technology has really accomplished is to vastly expand the range of conditions under which a camera aimed at the casual user will produce pictures of reasonable quality, while keeping down the cost of manufacture. There are only so many situations you can handle if all you have at your disposal is 1/50, f/11 and focus fixed at 6 feet; by comparison, today's autoexposure, autofocus cameras can do a passable job under an amazingly wide range of picture-taking conditions. There have been a few improvements in convenience—for example, the LCD in digital cameras allows the reassurance of seeing immediately whether the picture "came out". But in general, the principles of cost containment and of improving the camera's effective operating range rather than its handling at the point of exposure remain the primary drivers.
Of course, "reasonable quality" is a subjective judgment that, in the end, is up to the user. I'll be very surprised if the face detection feature in the new Fuji gains much traction in the marketplace, because I doubt that it will make a difference that most P&S users will be able to see, let alone be willing to pay for.
But here's something I wonder about. "Scene modes" are now standard in virtually every camera aimed at the non-hobbyist user. The amount of microprocessor power and memory needed to include these is now small relative to the capability of even inexpensive chips, so from a vendor's point of view there's nothing to lose. That's clearly intended as a quality-optimizing technology: in return for making one extra decision—are you shooting Junior's soccer game or his birthday party?—you get a bundle of situation-specific camera settings that should increase the odds of getting a consumer-pleasing snap. But you do have to be willing to study the instruction manual for long enough to figure out what the little icons mean. And you have to remember it three months later, when you dust off the camera again for the next special occasion. Is that one decision too many, and more hassle than it's worth? Does anybody actually use scene modes?
Posted by: OREN GRAD