CMOS Sensors Abound:
Maybe we just didn’t notice it before, but it seemed that in 2010, casual photographers suddenly became obsessed with low-light photography. More than any other kind of camera, would-be buyers came to us looking for a reasonably priced compact camera with a big zoom and excellent image quality in all situations, especially in the dark.
Thanks to the principles of supply, demand, and physics, that’s a tough one to pull off. A MOS-type sensor seems to be the best way to do it, at least at this point in time. These sensors can handle high ISO settings better than the run-of-the-mill CCD sensors found in most digital cameras, so low-light shots are richer and crisper than usual. They also allow for higher-res video and speedy burst shooting modes.
Sony, Nikon, and Canon all released MOS-based compact zooms last year. Though they all suffered from first-generation kinks -- splotchy low-ISO shots, ironically -- they mostly did what they were meant to do: Get better-than-average low-light photos. They must’ve sold well too, since a boatload more will be hitting shelves in 2011.
Following up their success with the HX5V, Sony announced two new CMOS-pact zooms, the 10x HX7V and 16x HX9V. Panasonic, the reigning kings of compact zooms, will try their hand a MOS-based model, the 16x ZS10. Fujifilm will offer up two 15x models, the F500EXR and F550EXR, both built around a slightly over-sized CMOS sensor, which should bode well for image quality. Canon just announced the 14x SX230 HS, complementing last year’s SD4500. Nikon just announced the 18x S9100, which will sit alongside last year's S8100.
It’s also worth noting that CMOS sensors are appearing more frequently in superzooms, point-and-shoots, and even rugged cameras, too. It certainly looks like the industry is moving to standardize CMOS sensors.
We’ll give this trend an A minus. It’s great to see manufacturers trying something different than the same old CCD sensors, and it’s the best chance for affordable forward progress in the compact space. It also gives camera buyers what they think they want: Better low-light shooting and full HD video. We’re a bit concerned about the unintended consequences, like softer image quality, but we’ll see how it pans out this year.
Enthusiast Class Swells:
There’s been a dearth of “in-between” cameras in recent years. Buyers could choose either a small-sensor fixed-lens camera or a big-sensor interchangeable-lens cameras; point-and-shoots or dSLRs, basically. The only true middle ground (superzooms and first-gen mirrorless don’t count) were a small handful of “advanced compacts” from Canon and Panasonic.
Now, the enthusiast’s cup runneth over with enticing new cameras: a wider selection of advanced compacts from Olympus, Fujifilm, Samsung, and Nikon, plus old standbys in Canon and Panasonic; and sleeker, slimmer, more functional mirrorless models from Panasonic, Olympus, Sony, and Samsung. Even some upper-end point-and-shoots from Canon and Nikon could entice some enthusiasts, thanks to their wide-open lenses.
This is obviously a great thing. At the lower end of the price range, they’re not much more expensive than luxury compacts or superzooms, but much better at actually taking pictures. Camera nerds have plenty of fodder for discussion these days, too.
This trend gets an A minus as well. If prices were just a little bit lower, enough to actually cannibalize sales from the bloated luxury point-and-shoot and superzoom categories, we’d bump it up to a full-on A. But quality doesn’t come cheap, as much as casual camera buyers wish that it did.
Zoom Ranges Extend Even Further:
Zoom range is the new megapixel, as we heard from several camera company reps at CES. Most camera buyers know by now that the megapixel myth was concocted by some bozo in marketing, so it’s harder to sell cameras on inflated megapixel counts alone. These days, compact cameras need to have absurd zoom ranges to get an edge on the pack.
Extra zoom is usually a good thing. Far-away objects appear to be closer; who can argue with that? Even sub-$200 point-and-shoots like the Panasonic FH25 can be effective from a few dozen yards away thanks to 8x zoom lenses. In the compact zoom category, the average range is about 15x this year, and Samsung and Nikon both announced models that reach 18x. Superzoom ranges are out of control. Fujifilm’s S4000 has a zoom range of 30x and will cost just $279 when it hits shelves in March. Canon’s $370 SX30 has a massive 35x zoom range, and Nikon just announced the 36x-zooming P500. To put it in perspective, Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter using a telescope with less than 30x magnification.
But a long focal range can come at the expense of image clarity, as we’ve seen this past year. To keep production costs and camera weight within reason, these lenses are usually built from plastic elements. Plastic just isn’t as crisp or clear as glass, and the inherent fuzziness gets more pronounced as the zoom range extends.
We’ll give this trend a B. More zoom usually means greater versatility, but as we’re discovering, it can really hurt image clarity. Some of the big zoomers that came out in the second half of 2010 produced much softer shots than the models that they replaced. But now that a 30x zoom range is commonplace, it’s too late to put the cat back in the bag. Commenters on this site and others have said that they won’t consider a superzoom with a zoom range of “only” 24x. The camera industry created a monster, and we have to deal with its fuzzy wrath.
At this time last year, three compact cameras had built-in GPS geo-tagging capability. Like many first-generation features, it didn’t work very well. The GPS units were more efficient at killing battery life than they were at accurately tagging locations. Samsung’s GPS-enabled camera was so ineffective that they stopped producing it after about five months.
But apparently there was enough demand to justify a second generation, with about a dozen new GPS-enabled cameras. Like last year’s models, most of these are compact zooms, though a few superzooms and rugged cameras will have the capability too. GPS on a rugged camera makes sense to us, since they’ll be used in wide-open outdoor spaces where it’s easy to get a signal. In other words, the feature will actually work.
We’re giving this trend a B minus. We’re in favor of GPS units in cameras, but last year’s models were a disappointment, and we won’t give this year’s class a free pass. Hopefully new technology like “hybrid” GPS can improve performance, but we’ll wait to see.
Megapixel Myth Continues:
Conscious consumers know that more megapixels are not more better. The myth was debunked years ago. The magic number is about 8 to 10 megapixels; beyond that, it's a waste of storage space and usually a detriment to image quality.
As we’ve been told (and as we mentioned above), zoom is the new megapixel -- as in, the hilariously bloated spec that gets shoppers to buy, buy, buy without a second thought. We know it, the manufacturers know it, and most buyers know it.
So why are there new cameras with 16 megapixels? They all seem to be of the under-$200 variety. Are the manufacturers preying on the ignorance of would-be casual photographers? Playing to the lowest common denominator? Whatever it is, we don’t like it.
As we’ve always said, we’re all in favor of higher resolution. But bumping the megapixel count on the same tiny sensor is not the way to achieve it. If you want high-quality poster-sized prints, buy a dSLR or hire a pro.