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The Best And Worst Digital Camera Trends of 2012

Last updated on 01/18/2013

The camera market is constantly evolving as new technologies are introduced and consumers continue to lust after the latest releases. Here we try to break down exactly what trends are currently driving this latest round of camera releases and what they mean for you, the consumer.
By Chris Weigl

Mirrorless Camera Segment Booms:

Olympus and Panasonic have been in the mirrorless game now for quite a while, and the other biggies in the business are now scrambling to grab their own share of the boom. Mirrorless cameras offer all the functionality of a DSLR (and sometimes more), as well as superb image quality without any of the bulk. Mirrorless cameras are so small because they forego the mirrorbox, a carry-over from the film days, that directed light to an optical viewfinder and prevented light from inadvertently exposing the film. The digital revolution, with its high-resolution LCD screens and electronic sensors, have done away with the need for such a contraption.

Micro 4/3s was the first format on the scene, with Panasonic taking advantage of the smaller 4/3 sensor to produce the G1. Competitors quickly followed, and now the field is saturated with a large variety of models for all levels of the market, most of which boast stellar image quality. Samsung released their NX system, Sony the well-reviewed Alpha NEX system, Nikon it's miniscule 1 series, Leica the rangefinder M line, and Pentax the Q and K-01.

Other than simply the small form factor, mirrorless cameras offer some other substantial benefits over their mirrored siblings. The lack of a mirror means much faster continuous bursts (the mirror doesn't have to flip up and down), continuous and fast autofocus while shooting in live view or video mode, and all the usability benefits of being able to use that back LCD screen (especially if it tilts). Those used to optical viewfinders might bemoan their replacement, but the newest high-resolution electronic viewfinders offer unparallelled shooting information and very good contrast.

This trend gets an A from us. There's really very little downside to the movement, and cameras like the Sony NEX-7 and Olympus OM-D E-M5 ensure that prosumer shooters looking for external controls are appeased. On the lower end, point and shoot customers can buy relatively compact cameras without sacrificing image quality, all while being able to shoot in live view as with any compact camera. The end of the low-end consumer DSLR is rapidly approaching.


CMOS Sensors For Everyone:

Low-light photography has, for most of the digital age, been the secret bastion of the DSLR photographer. With their big sensors and fast lenses, DSLRs had cornered the market on dimly-lit bars and moonlit scenics. Compact and affordable CMOS sensors have changed all that, however, ushering in a new era of ultra-compact cameras with unprecedented image quality and speed.

Before CMOS sensors were either good enough or cheap enough to produce for the mass-market, compact cameras and most DSLRs relied on CCD (charge-coupled device) sensors for their imaging. While very clean at low ISOs, these sensors lacked on-chip noise reduction and were frankly useless at anything above ISO 800. Now it's not uncommon to find ISO 3200 on compact cameras, and the latest DSLRs shoot at ISOs past ISO 25,600!


All of the major manufacturers have now released CMOS-based compacts that offer higher ISOs and faster readouts than ever before. Not only has this trend facilitated better low-light shooting, but many of these faster sensors can capture 1080p video at 60fps and allow for faster continuous shooting. The benefits are hard to ignore, and all but the cheapest cameras now incorporate CMOS sensors.

The newest CMOS technology, finally becoming mainstream now in 2012, is backside-illuminated CMOS sensors. Put simply, these specially designed chips collect more light than a simple CMOS, allowing for even better performance in low light. Unfortunately, we haven't been completely wowed by the detail these sensors produce, with images in even the best light looking smeared and muted. Hopefully these kinks will be ironed out sooner rather than later; the manufacturers have jumped headfirst into the new technology and many phones are now using the BSI sensors.

We’ll give this trend a B plus. CMOS sensors have breathed new life into the compact market and given consumers a real reason to upgrade to the newest models. The speed benefit is an added benefit for HD videographers as well sports shooters, and we think camcorders will soon be a thing of the past. We’re still a bit concerned about the unintended consequences, like softer image quality, but we’ll see how these BSI sensors pan out.


Zoom Ranges Extend Even Further:

In the marketer's search of ever-bigger numbers to sell to consumers, zoom range seems to be the new megapixel. While most consumers now understand that more megapixels is not a necessary or even good thing, zoom ranges continue to balloon without an end in sight. What's the problem with that, you ask? It may not be one, depending on the camera, but there are a number of compromises manufacturers are making to squeeze in a couple more millimeters.

Zoom range is an important undeniably the most important deciding factor, other than image quality, for those on the market; the longer and wider the camera lens, the more versatile your camera becomes. The travel zoom category is now up to around 20x zoom, and bridge cameras are even higher than that. Canon’s SX40 has a massive 35x zoom range, and Nikon just announced the 42x P510 that extends out to an unbelievable 1000mm. This is exactly where the small sensor of a bridge camera shines; the longest consumer lens Canon makes is the 800mm f5.6, and it costs $14,000.

But a long focal range can come at the expense of image clarity, as we’ve seen this past year. There's a reason professional lenses are typically only about 3x zoom and that prime lenses boast the best image quality: it's hard to make a fantastic lens with a long zoom range. More versatile zoom ranges also mean either slower lenses or bulkier bodies. Sony's HX and WX lines are both ballooning in zoom range and, of course, physical size. The alternative to increasing the size is decreasing the image sensor itself, which Canon tried with the 520 HS. The camera was panned in reviews due to poor image quality and Canon quickly released a fix in the 530 HS. Zoom is all well and good, but at what cost?

We’ll give this trend a B. Zoom range is definitely a good thing in theory, but the compromises being made are beginning to affect image quality. Smaller sensors, slower lenses, and longer zoom ranges all negatively affect the clarity of your image as well as its performance in low light. And besides, even with stabilization who can handhold 1000mm?


Megapixel Myth Continues:

Conscious consumers know that more megapixels are not necessarily better. Manufacturers are increasingly squeezing more and smaller photosites on the tiny chips used in compact cameras with mixed results.

Now, we aren't saying that there is no use for the 36 megapixel sensor used in Nikon's $3000 D800. That sensor is orders of magnitude larger than the typical point and shoot sensor and doesn't seem to suffer serious noise penalties due to the greater crowding. The compact camera market marches on, however, and Sony's latest point and shoots offer 18 megapixel sensors that promise to disappoint.

Higher resolution is, of course, a good thing in theory. More megapixels generally means a greater ability to crop your images and print larger. But there's a reason the high-end compacts like Olympus' XZ-1 or Canon's S100 sit comfortably at 10 to 12 megapixels. This seems to be the sweet spot in compacts for low-light image quality and resolution with our current technology. Don't get drawn in by the hype.

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