Tuesday, 9 June 2009

More is not always better

Camera business is an excellent example of when customer driven business (the usual case, I know) is sometimes harmful to the customers. I could think of many other examples as well, but this is as good as any.

The problem comes from the fact people think more is always better. I'm of course referring to pixel count. Two cameras, same price tag, other has 4 megapixels, the other 12, guess which one is sold? Why not stop and think what might be better in the 4 megapixel camera instead of assuming it's just worse?

It would be beneficial to at least 99% of camera buyers if the manufacturers stopped increasing pixel count and concentrated on other issues. Making a camera with 4 megapixels would basically mean better image quality in most situations. The camera could have higher usable ISO settings, so shooting in low light would be possible and since a smaller pixel count would allow cheaper parts, not just the CMOS chip, but also CPU etc. the manufacturer might be able to squeeze in a better quality lens as well for the same price. This would have better aperature, clearer image and larger dynamic range. And the camera would work faster since there would be a lot less pixels to handle.

But of course manufacturers have to keep increasing pixel counts because consumers expect it. And partly this is because in most magazines pixel count is the first thing mentioned. I have read lately several comparisons where the heading was in the form of "10 megapixel cameras reviewed". So the onus is in pixel count. The really funny thing is these cameras are usually in the so-called prosumer class, i.e. cameras meant for more than casual photographers. People you would expect to know things like this. But they fall for the same.

I have had a few prosumer cameras and by far the best lens was in my first, the Canon G3. It was really slow, like digital cameras then used to be, but it had a great f2.0 lens. It was so good I could take pictures inside French cathedrals without a tripod! Yep, all of those pictures were taken without one (I didn't want to lug one with me). Unfortunately the LCD screen stopped working and since it didn't have an EVF it became practically useless (since I couldn't access the menus etc any more) so I had to buy a new one. This time a Canon S2 IS, which I have to say is a lot faster and has more megapixels, bu struggles in low light. I also have a cheap SLR (Nikon D40) but prosumers are a very good niche. They offer almost the same features as an SLR in normal conditions but in a much more compact form. SLR's get really useful only in special conditions and special needs and when you need one you are carrying a big backbag just for the camera in contrast to the small bag hanging from your belt (like I carry my S2).

Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a market for 3-5 megapixel cameras with good lenses because everyone wants more megapixels instead. Maybe the trend will stop some day when everyone realises they have no use with all these pixels. How many actually make so large inprints that they need 12 megapixels? The details are still fuzzy if you try to zoom, mostly because of the lens. But of course it would be a lot harder to sell better picture quality and more shots without camera shake.

Another thing is the long tele lenses. How many pictures does anyone apart from some special cases (like wildlife photographers) take that require a 300+ mm tele lens? But to get these 20x zooms manufacturers have to sacrifice image quality, aperature and dynamic range and then try to fix some of these problems with software (hence stuff like HDR entering the market).

A camera with a good lens (f2.0-f5.6 for instance), lowish pixelcount and a decent zoom range (say, 28 - 200) with quick operations and manual, programmable and auto settings in a decently sized package would be the perfect solution for at least 99% of camera buyers. They would probably never need anything else.

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