Plugged In: Manufacturers snap back at cellphones

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Faster than Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff in old Road Runner cartoons, sales of lower-end digital cameras continue to plummet with no end in sight. In reaction, traditional camera makers have increasingly returned to their “golden age,” shifting to high-end, often retro-styled cameras.

As we’ve remarked previously in these pages, improved cellphone photo capabilities are the primary reason for the decline of lower-end cameras. There’s a practical limit to that improvement, though. To be convenient and useful as a phone, a cellphone must be small and easily slipped into a pocket. That’s in tension with the physically larger size required for good photographic functionality.

To be practical, cellphones should be fairly thin and easily pocketable, but that makes them susceptible to bending and breaking. That thin body also precludes the larger sensors, eye-level viewfinders, easy controls and complex lenses needed for better-quality photography. Good quality, high-magnification telephoto functions, in particular, are not feasible within a cellphone’s thin, small case. The necessary optics are simply too large to fit.

In order to fit its small and thin form factor, cellphone cameras necessarily use very small sensors, generally quite a bit smaller than the 1/2.3-inch sensors that are among the smallest found in lower-end digital cameras. It’s now generally accepted, and accurately so, that larger sensors provide much better image quality, especially in dim light. However, larger sensors require physically larger lenses, which cannot fit within reasonably pocketable cellphones. Very small sensors also tend to be much more prone to digital noise and reduced dynamic range, which causes inky-black shadows and blown highlights lacking detail.

In addition, there’s an unavoidable optical phenomenon — diffraction — that sets an absolute limit on the sharpness of any lens, especially the small, short-focal-length lenses required by a cellphone’s thin body. Diffraction is a fundamental optical property that can’t be sidestepped by any technology, no matter how clever.

As lenses and lens apertures become physically smaller, diffraction begins to dramatically reduce maximum potential sharpness. When you’re using a very small sensor, there’s precious little spare sharpness. Thus, given current technology, the only way to dramatically improve cellphone image quality is to include much larger sensors and optics, but that requires a much larger and thicker cellphone body.

As a practical matter, then, there’s an upper limit beyond which a cellphone becomes too thick to be easily pocketable and thus a burden rather than a benefit. By that point, your cellphone’s become at least as large and thick as a more versatile digital camera with better image quality. Even larger tablet computers, by the way, include essentially the same small sensors and lenses used by ordinary cellphones, and to no greater benefit.

As a result of these various sensor and optical requirements, cellphone photo technology won’t come close to the image quality of current midrange and upper-end digital cameras for the foreseeable future.

Traditional camera makers have refocused their competition by going upmarket. They’ve dropped unprofitable lines of inexpensive, consumer-oriented digital cameras, concentrating instead on well-built, high-end cameras whose retro styling and features evoke classic film cameras of the 1960s and 1970s. We’ve included a few illustrations of some excellent retro-styled cameras now on the market.

Leica X2

Leica X2

Leica’s X2 ($2,000 with fixed moderate wide-angle lens) is quite reminiscent of early pre-World War II Leica film cameras. Olympus’ OM-D ($900 to $1,300 depending on included kit lens) echoes the look and handling that company’s highly regarded OM series of compact, single-lens reflex film cameras favored by pro photographers in the 1970s and 1980s. Nikon’s Coolpix A ($1,100 with fixed wide-angle lens) is a bit more generalized in styling and design. It evokes classic 1950s rangefinder cameras,

Olympus OM-D

Olympus OM-D

such as the Zeiss Contax and Leica M series, considered the pinnacle of image quality and jewel-like construction in their day.

Olympus’ brand-new E-P5 ($1,000 to $1,449 depending on kit lens and viewfinder options) looks like a near-perfect replica of Olympus’ 1963 Pen-F, an interchangeable-lens film camera so small that it fits in a large pocket.

Nikon Coolpix A

Nikon Coolpix A

Each of these are among the best-performing digital cameras in their category. Retro styling really has no bearing on image quality, although it may favorably affect handling and buyer perceptions of quality.

The retro styling and solid metal construction are, in part, marketing devices to differentiate upper-tier cameras from the cheap plastic digital cameras that were the norm a few years ago. Luckily, though, there’s plenty of solid technology and

Olympus E-P5

Olympus E-P5

substance in these modern reincarnations. Metal construction really is more solid and long-lived, while the ergonomics and handling of classically styled cameras are highly refined and very good.

From the viewpoint of financially struggling manufacturers, though perhaps not the consumer, the best feature of these retro-styled cameras is that purchasers are willing to pay more for them, at least partially offsetting the decreased number of units sold each year. Once hooked, such purchasers are also more likely to “upgrade” every few years as more-capable models are introduced, and more likely to buy additional lenses on a regular basis.

In a very real sense, the digital camera market seems to be settling back into same general pattern as traditional film photography in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, the average person took occasional snapshots with a cheap plastic film camera, often a Kodak Instamatic with flash cubes. These were the cellphone camera of the era and good enough for the small snapshot prints of the day.

Serious users on a budget bought good quality but basic 35-mm SLR film cameras, usually a Pentax Spotmatic, Olympus OM, Minolta or Canon AE-1. More affluent users, and many professionals, bought virtually indestructible Nikon film SLR cameras or Leica rangefinder cameras. People continued to use the same camera for years because film camera technology had matured to a point where it was more than good enough for most purposes and had reached a level where further evolution occurred slowly.

There was scant objective incentive to regularly upgrade film cameras and, as a result, competition was relatively genteel, unlike today’s rapid-fire upgrades. If a new and better film was introduced, you’d merely buy a roll and load it into your existing film camera. Lenses improved only slowly, as well, with the same design often in production for two decades.

Digital sensors, although now abundantly capable, are permanently installed in digital camera bodies, so any upgrade requires purchasing a new camera body. In some ways, that’s a step backward from film. Optical technology improves yearly as a result of better computer design and improved optical glass.

In some ways, digital technology has now matured to a point where current top-end digital cameras are now good enough to form a solid foundation for years of serious use, rather than requiring frequent upgrading. Perhaps that’s why the competition has now shifted toward styling to differentiate upper-tier models. I’m not sure what’s next. Perhaps tail fins?

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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