Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Digital photography for the future

My post on image stabilization and innovation in digital photography got me thinking a little on what the future might bring to this area ... of course that it's so easy to fall to the extreme and say either that the megapixel race will last forever or that innovation is already stopping and not much evolution will ever be seen ... but the truth is probably in between :)

I am also quite proud of my technology predictions and especially those related to photography - I still have the magazine where at some point during the previous millennium I said that APS film will die and 35 mm film will become a niche market ... which was pretty much 'spot on' and maybe now I have a chance to see how good my new predictions are going to be in the future digital world ...

So what can the future bring to photography ? There are obvious not-so-technical things that will make a difference - like for instance the omnipresence of phones with a camera (and maybe we'll finally get the videophones that were so 'right around the corner' ... about 50 years ago :) ) but let's neglect the social part and focus more on technology!

There is one unusual thing that could improve even existing cameras - and that is better FIRMWARE - pretty much all consumer cameras are somehow rushed to the market and then NEVER see a firmware update since engineers are a little too busy rushing to the market the next generation of cameras! Even the more competitive brands like Ricoh are not always paying enough attention - for instance they could very easy add a few tweaks to their current best-selling camera - the Caplio R4 - and make it more appealing to the serious users without any sacrifice for low-end users (and they already have most of those software routines working in the more expensive GR Digital model - I am speaking about the RAW files and some manual time-vs-aperture control).

Image stabilization is already here - a little on the limited side at this point but things can only get better - and we might even start to see the use of sensor-based stabilization for 'movie mode' too! (obviously not from Canon - they have too much invested in lens-based stabilization).

I find hard to believe that the megapixel race will continue - maybe the CPU megahertz race might be a small hint on that - but while on computers the power consumption was the major limiting factor on digital sensors the enemy is the noise - and you can already see that the 8 megapixel sensors were generally slightly worse in noise than a 6 megapixel of precisely the same dimension! This also might be the major problem on the road towards decent cameras of ever smaller size - so I don't expect huge results on that either - but my R4 is small enough as it is :) The other major hurdle for the megapixel race might be (surprisingly) consumer education - most people with some digital camera experience can now realize that 8 megapixels can barely provide visual benefits over 6 megapixels for consumer-size sensors (and the difference from 8 to 10 will be mostly invisible on those sensors) and that other features - like zoom, low latency, low noise or stabilization - are far more important when choosing a camera!

There ARE however other things that could be improved and probably the most important of them all is about the 'non-bayer sensors' - Foveon has promised a revolution not entirely different from the one with image stabilization but so far has failed to deliver - that has a lot to do with the existing desire to preserve the 'status quo' (so again I can bet that none of the existing major sensor manufacturers will be involved) - but probably also a little with the technological hurdles that need to be surpassed (3 layers are hard to build one on top of the other in a VERY precise way) - maybe a wiser approach would be to first get to a simpler 2-layers structure for one of the 6 megapixel sensors only with much better color reproduction and much lower noise than the existing 6 megapixel models ! (and avoid marketing that as a 12 megapixel sensor anyway - Foveon was almost killed by such a marketing gimmick)

One other strange idea that I would like to see at least tested - but maybe I should first get a patent on it :) - would be something around the 'cumulative exposure mode' or at least 'multi exposure mode' - in which basically the camera will have two readings of (almost, or at least as close as possible) the same image - first using a time T and then another one taken with something like 4*T up to 16*T - with the right processing that might actually have the result of providing 2-4 extra bits of dynamics and finally surpassing the range of the best film!

So in the medium term I see no major danger but also no huge changes to photography as we have it today - maybe we'll see some wider/panoramic models, maybe a bit more stereoscopic stuff, eventually even things with software-enhanced-depth-of-field but all of those will still be based on the same 'focal plane paradigm' - but maybe one day somebody will also think of digital holography :)


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