New cameras for a new Millennium
The sixteenth century gave us the camera. The nineteenth century gave us
film, and photography as we know it. The twentieth century gave us
colour. The new millennium inherited from its predecessor some
photographic equipment which hadn’t moved on much in the last few
decades, and in some instances (APS film?) had moved backwards! The
constraints on photographers who used film in 1999 (i.e almost
everybody) were very similar to those constraints in 1935 when
Kodachrome was first introduced. Camera design was constrained by the
range of film available, and the best films hadn’t improved much in that
Caught between a shaky rock and a noisy hard place
The photographer in 1935 had few worries taking photos in bright
daylight. But as the day drew to a close, the light started to dim and
the photographic potential got more interesting, he suddenly ran into
difficulty. There wasn’t enough light to take photos at short
enough shutter speeds to hand-hold the camera. Solutions – a
tripod, faster film or faster lenses. None of these are great
solutions. Faster film means more grain. Faster lenses get
exponentially heavier and more expensive, depth of field and sharpness
reduce at faster apertures and there is a physical limit on how fast
lenses can get. Tripods only work perfectly when the subject is
stationary (and no subject is perfectly stationary). And they’re a big
pain in the arse (sometimes literally!). By 1999 faster film had become
available and had become somewhat less grainy but as anyone who has ever
used 200ASA Sensia will testify, 100ASA is still the realistic limit for
top quality colour slides.
new technologies to the rescue
The photographer in 2003 has two new solutions to the low-light problem;
image stabiliser lenses and digital cameras. Image stabiliser lenses
can, the reports say, yield acceptably sharp results at much slower
shutter speeds than ordinary lenses. Like tripods, however, they can’t
help when the subject is moving. Digital cameras (but only a select few
of the many currently available) can yield acceptably noise-free images
at much faster film speeds than real film. Combine the two technologies
and the camera has suddenly, after many decades of being constrained by
the same old problem, become genuinely closer to being perfect.
Perfection in the 21st Century
Bizarre fetishes and global holocaust aside, it is unlikely that there
will be any film-based cameras in production at the end of this century.
Evolution is inevitable and the next evolutionary step for cameras is
digital. But in these early years of this millennium the only
interesting digital cameras are saddled with technology from the last.
There are only a few digital cameras which can be used at higher film
speeds than real film with acceptable noise levels, and in each case all
their key components are taken from film-based predecessors.
next stage in the evolution of the professional quality camera is the
digital camera which is designed from scratch to be digital. The new
Canon EOS 10D apparently has a camera body designed to be digital from
scratch, but shares its lenses as well as most elements of its design
with film-based predecessors.
Abandoning constraints in the digital age
Because of time constraints and market forces, all the best current
digital cameras are SLRs. Until very recently the only people who could
afford these cameras were professionals. These professionals are
accustomed to using SLRs, and in most cases have a collection of
existing film-based camera bodies and lenses. Also, designing new lenses
takes time, so in order to get something onto the market which people
would buy, camera manufacturers made digital SLRs which are compatible
with current lens ranges. But time constraints and market forces aside,
are there any convincing reasons for making digital cameras which use
lenses which were designed for 35mm film cameras? And are there any
convincing reasons for retaining the SLR design?
The goal of WYSIWYG
The advantage of the SLR over other film camera designs is that, to a
certain extent, what you see through the viewfinder is what you get when
the film is developed. However, what you see is not EXACTLY what you
get, because the viewfinder takes no account of:
(1) The film type;
(2) The aperture and shutter speed; and
The viewfinder image will still be in colour if you’re using black and
white or infra-red film. The viewfinder image will not be grainy even if
you are using very grainy film. Night lights may look white through the
viewfinder but come out green on the film.
The viewfinder image shows what the lens sees at maximum
aperture, not the aperture which is going to be used for the photo.
Cameras with a “depth of field preview” can display the actual depth of
field through the viewfinder but the image gets so dark it is difficult
to judge how the final picture will look.
The viewfinder does not take exposure into account. Things may look fine
through the viewfinder but the final result may be washed out through
overexposure or too dark through underexposure.
One further problem is that with a very few exceptions, SLR viewfinders
don’t show 100% of the image area. So unless you own a very expensive
professional SLR you might carefully compose a shot so that an offending
piece of fence is just out of view only to see the very same fence make
an unwelcome appearance on your slide.
An electronic viewfinder could, potentially, solve all these issues and
take the viewfinder one step closer to being truly “what you see is what
you get”. The technology has some way to go, though. I have seen
electronic viewfinders on current “consumer” digital cameras and they
are not remotely acceptable. But the eventual dominance of the
electronic viewfinder is almost as inevitable as that of digital cameras
As well as true “WYSIWYG” there are other advantages of moving away from
SLR technology. Lenses could be made smaller and lighter. Lens design
could take advantage of the digital nature of the camera. Image
stabilisation technology in the lens could be coupled with similar
technology in the camera itself, leading to a further reduction in the
number of scenarios which require a tripod.
The goal of perfect exposure
One of the key skills in photography today is exposure technique. But
the need for such a skill is a consequence of imperfect technology. If
film had infinite dynamic range (or exposure latitude) the photographer
wouldn’t have to worry about exposure. He could just concentrate on
composition and shoot at whatever aperture he desired for ideal depth of
field or optical quality. Decisions as to how light/dark/contrasty the
image should look could be postponed to the “darkroom” stage. Modern
colour print film has a wide dynamic range, enabling this technique to
be adopted to a certain extent. But even colour print film does not have
as wide a dynamic range as the human eye. A digital sensor could
potentially equal or exceed the dynamic range of the eye itself.
digital sensors work by exposing a number of light-sensitive areas of a
silicon chip to light for a period of time and measuring electrical
characteristics at the end of the period. Those electrical measurements
for each “pixel” correspond to how bright the image is at that point in
the image. The problem with this is that overexposed areas get “washed
out” (or “blown out” as the Americans call it) easily where the measured
values hit their maximum.
Fuji have recently introduced a
chip which has two
sensors per pixel of different levels of sensitivity, so that if the
more sensitive one reaches a maximum value, a meaningful result can be
taken from the less sensitive one. Another way to get meaningful values
from “overexposed” sensors would be for a timer to be integrated into
the silicon chip for each pixel. Each pixel’s timer could start at the
beginning of the exposure, and stop once the sensor reached saturation,
if that happened. The “highlight” information could then be
reconstructed by the camera using the time values, and the rest of the
image could be dealt with in the conventional way. Whether future
digital sensors use this or other techniques, I believe practically
“infinite” dynamic range ought to be a possibility for a digital sensor.
It’s just a matter of making the light-sensitive silicon chip
Making the expensive parts cheaper
Photographic equipment, having entered the realm of the microprocessor,
is now “governed” by
Law. Unlike real “laws” (think Newton and Einstein), Moore’s Law
should really be called Moore’s “rule of thumb”, but it has proved
remarkably accurate. Translated into the photographic world, it means
that every couple of years the resolution of digital “film” will double.
And it seems to apply exactly as expected – witness April 2000’s Canon
EOS D30 (3 megapixels, £3000) and January 2002’s EOS D60 (6 megapixels,
£2000). 12 megapixels for £1500 in January 2004? That may seem amazing
but would only be a simple application of the “law”.
However, whilst the digital “film” improves with the same speed as the
microprocessors in our PCs, the rest of the camera lags behind. The
optical equivalent to Moore’s law (Zeiss’ law?) goes something like this
– every 5 or so years optical quality will improve very slightly and
lenses may also get a tiny bit lighter although prices will by-and-large
stay the same.
But with digital cameras, especially with electronic viewfinders,
perhaps it is possible to drag “optical” quality into line with Moore’s
law by leveraging as much of the image quality burden as possible onto
the electronics? This is the same technology as was used in the Hubble
space telescope to use powerful electronics and software to compensate
for the telescope’s optical deficiencies.
Vignetting? No problem – the digital “film” has infinite dynamic range
and the vignetting can be compensated for in software. Distortion? Never
mind – each lens can be accurately measured in the factory and all its
known distortions can be compensated for in software, in “real time” so
you don’t even see distortion through the viewfinder. Extreme
wide-angles? No problem – make them the cheaper fisheye design and
correct the distortion in software. Digital technology can thus improve
upon the ultimate quality of top-end cameras, and (perhaps more
importantly in economic terms) make ordinary consumer cameras lighter
and cheaper by putting the strain on the electronics rather than the
With film, the photographer has always been trapped between trade-offs.
To get large depth of field, we had to use small apertures, and hence
long shutter speeds. Large depth of field AND short shutter speed? No
way, with film. But perhaps you could do it with digital? Infinite
dynamic range would mean you could choose the optimum aperture AND
shutter speed independently. And once you have shed the constraints of
an optical viewfinder you open up the possibilities of weird technology
like Wavefront Coding,
which achieves extensive depth of field without small apertures.
Some 2003 camera types and their future replacements
Disposable camera / cheap “point and shoot”/ APS
Replaced by built-in camera on your “mobile phone”. This will not just
be a phone and a camera, but a personal organiser, personal stereo, GPS
system and “rape alarm”. The ability to instantly send a good quality
colour photograph/video footage of an assailant together with precise
location information to a police control centre will prove a valuable
deterrent to crime, making these “mobile phones” the next best defensive
weapon to a gun, provided the batteries are charged…
Quality 35mm point and shoot / “consumer” SLR
Replaced by increasingly higher quality variants of current digicams.
I expect them to be smaller than film cameras - along the lines of Ultra-compact digital cameras such as the Pentax Optio S or
Minolta Dimage IX.
Serious amateur/ professional 35mm SLR
Initially replaced by high-end digicams and digital SLRs using lens ranges from film-based
SLRs, but eventually superseded by interchangeable lens system cameras
with electronic viewfinders. Not being SLRs, the body and lenses would
have dimensions closer to those of the Contax G3 than to current 35mm
SLRs. Sensor size would tend to be around APS size, which would also help contribute to
reduced size and weight.
Medium and large format, including panoramics
Replaced by specialist interchangeable digital backs and lenses. Sensor
size would vary from 35mm size up to perhaps 6x9. Canon's D1s has
already shown that medium format quality is possible from a 35mm sized
sensor, so my prediction is for "medium format" type cameras to be
replaced with something more like 35mm size.
Never be tempted to think "digital cameras have got
about as good as they're going to get". There's a big difference
between good enough and as good as it gets.
Maybe in 2003 digital cameras are good enough. But expect
better to come. Much better.
I have borrowed the wonderful camera sketch at the top
of this article from the
Canon Camera Museum - it was an early design for the Canon T90!