What’s Ahead For Digital Cameras?
New Technology Changes The Game

Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of ink jet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

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As competition heats up and manufacturing efficiencies are realized, most baseline models in the $149-$249 range will be offered with 3 megapixels and a minimum of a 3x optical zoom. Those specs alone will get you 4x6 prints comparable with most point-and-shoot film camera prints. Viewing screens will change, too, with 2-3" LCD screens emerging as the new minimum standard. These larger screens will make in camera photo-editing composition a lot easier and will improve user friendliness, especially when it comes to shooting video. On the battery scene you'll see more models with rechargeable batteries. Better yet, those batteries will shoot more pictures because manufacturers are using low-powered processors and other critical power management components.

Shutter lag, that annoying delay from the time you click the shutter until the time the camera responds is dramatically decreasing. In fact, digital camera shutter lag time is now approaching the lag time for point-and-shoot film cameras. Shot-to-shot delay is also decreasing, allowing digital shooters to more comfortably keep up with the action.

The big change in memory cards is that the cost per megabyte keeps falling. A 512MB CompactFlash card holds about the same number of pictures as 14 rolls of film. With that card retailing for less than $40 right now, you're already at the same cost as the 14 rolls. If the downward price trend continues, one does not even to have erase the memory card for reuse anymore.
Take a step up from the entry-level models and that's where the race really heats up. At the mid ($299) through upper ($1000) price points, we'll be seeing significant advances in three main areas: 1) image capture, 2) advanced control, including in camera photo-editing features, and 3) improved downloading and sharing techniques.

In megapixels, we'll continue to see incremental upswings in the 6-, 7-, and 8-megapixel range and beyond. But the impact of increased megapixel counts on image quality will be minor compared to the new advancements in image capture and in camera photo editing. Starting in 2005 you'll see manufacturers using high-tech solutions to solve age-old problems like camera shake, contrast extremes, optical aberrations, and redeye. Other in camera editing options will allow photographers to get more creative right in the camera, without the need for PC-based photo-editing programs.

Image Stabilization
Camera shake is not unique to digital. It's been with us since the early days of film. But, with the least expensive digital cameras now offering a 3x optical zoom and higher-end cameras at the 10-12x level, a steady hand might be too much to ask. A 10x optical zoom might offer the equivalent of a 350mm telephoto on a 35mm camera, and there aren't many photographers who can hand hold that focal length and get consistently shake-free images. So, you'll be seeing Image Stabilization in many of the new digital cameras. This year only a few manufacturers have it. Within five years, all manufacturers will be offering this important feature.

There are several different Image Stabilization techniques. What they have in common is that they all rely on a powerful digital processor and software to track camera movement. On the high-end models, the digital processor analyzes the camera movement and determines how fast, how much, and in which direction it has to physically move either the lens or the image capture sensor to eliminate blur. On mid-priced models, the image tracking process is the same, but instead of physically moving the lens or imaging sensor, the processor applies corrective software fixes to the image itself to digitally sharpen the blur. At the lowest end of the price range, the camera will employ similar tracking techniques, but rather than order a mechanical or digital correction, it will simply prevent you from shooting a picture that it knows will be blurry. That will force you to steady the camera or zoom out a bit.

Because of the higher megapixel counts in all digital still cameras, manufacturers will also offer dramatically higher-quality video capabilities. This year you can expect to see VGA quality resolution (640x480) with frame rates of 30 frames per second as a standard feature in many models. Add video stabilization to the mix and for the first time you've got a real video camera packaged inside a digital still camera.