Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stuff on my desk - The future of point and shoot digital cameras

I was going to lump a few items together and to a sort of review stuff on my desk (or otherwise nearby) as sort of commentary/review. Instead I decided to break these down individually. First up is my point and shoot Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH1 camera. But think of this more generically, referencing digital point and shoot cameras in general.

This camera goes just about everywhere with me and has for 1 year and 11 months. It's not a current model. It's a nice little 12 MP camera that also shoots not horrible 720p video. I bought it to 'upgrade" from a Canon SD1000, 7.1 MP camera which at $179 was about $30 higher in price than the Lumix when the Lumix was new. The other reason I have a pocket camera is because I don't own a cell phone. Yes, this is true and I have not owned a cell phone since 1994. But there are other reasons for having a pocket camera and the ones that seems most significant is you are presumably getting better optics, a larger sensor and therefore nicer images. I don't care how good you think the photos are off your phone, if it's got a cheap little plastic lens it can't be that good. Whatever one gets out of putting a lens on top of the native plastic lens you're still starting off with a plastic lens.

I often see pictures off iPhones, etc., on sites like Facebook usually processed though some utility app, where people are raving how great they are. Really? Seriously? Or they're just trying to be nice. I see at best average pictures image quality-wise. Of course there are those people who wouldn't know the difference between an Ansel Adams and the dad's 1971 Polaroid of El Capitan, even if they were hit over the head with a Sequoia tree. Obviously things are only as good as the subject matter in the moment anyway. I mean some of the greatest pictures in history were taken using some pretty sub-par tools, right?

My perspective is, because people are saying the pocket camera will die due to better and better cameras in cell phones and everybody (except me) has a cell phone, keep the quality of the optics high in the point in shoot, continually improve the quality of the sensor and for heaven's sake---make the sensor user friendly to maintain or make it self-cleaning. Did you know I was leading up to this? By the way phone folks, more megapixels doesn't necessarily mean a better picture.

Devices like point and shoot cameras have been designed from the get go not to allow for things like user-maintenance. I think this is really short sited on the part of the manufacturers. In a bygone era cameras were designed to last a lifetime. Now they're designed to be disposed off but the camera makers maintain this position--they'll be replaced. Well sure but they're starting to be replaced by the cameras in the cell phone and they are successfully closing off the market of having something that takes better pictures than a phone in one's pocket. Presumably enough people still want better pictures although that desire is also being absorbed by "good enough." Personally I'd like to have the smallest possible, most optically versatile, best picture taking device I can in my pocket. I'd also like to be able to keep it that way.

The camera makers have finally realized on the DSLR, where people are laying out significant amounts of money, that a sensor cleaning system would be a good benefit to sales. The way this works is vibrations are sent to the sensor and that has a certain degree of success in knocking the dust off. The dust is still in the camera though.

Canon has a multi-level technology for dealing with dust on certain DSLR models. I know about Canon because I own a Canon. I'll assume the other top camera makers are on top of this in some similar fashion too. (Images from canon.com)

Step one, the use of materials which are less inclined to attract dust

Step two,  use of vibration to get what dust that adheres to fall off. Hopefully

Step 3, mapping the dust image so it can be "removed" after the fact. As far as this step goes I'd rather make these decisions myself with tools in Photoshop.

So they try to high-tech, dummy-proof the dust aspect of owning a DSLR but it seems they sort of forgot the traditional methods of dust removal for SLR cameras--we went in with a soft cloth, a blower brush and/or a can of dust-off and did it ourselves. Why the camera manufactures don't think the end-user can adapt to the newer technology is beyond me.

Anyway, back to my Lumix point and shoot. Other Lumix pocket cameras are designed similarly while  mine actually seems to be one of the more difficult models for accessing the CCD sensor and manually removing dust. After  you remove a number of screws with a # 0 bit (most likely) this is what you see. I'm going to assume that if you're still reading this you feel mechanically inclined enough to figure out which screws you need to remove to get to this point. To remove any ribbon cable lift the connector gently with a pair of tweezers. Sometimes you can simply back a cable off out of your way without disconnecting.

Under that circular plate (the CCD block) I have marked, which in the case of this Lumix is sloppily taped down with thin black pain to deal with tape, is the CCD block. The sensor is attached to the opposite side of the block so be careful lifting it, under that is the infrared filter sitting directly behind the lens. It is the motion of the lens moving in and out when you turn the camera on and off that sucks the dust inside. Carrying a camera around in your pocket isn't a lot of help either. The infrared filter is where most of the dust will reside. I prefer to hold on to this delicately but firmly with tweezers along the black plastic housing and hit it with some compressed air. Same with the sensor. Then promptly get things back together before more dust settles.

Essentially my advice as a lowly consumer to the big camera makers is make this process easier, allow us easy access to clean both the filter and the sensor. Make the small format more attractive to buy for the person who wants to take better pictures than a cell phone would, keep improving on the sensor for these cameras and keep improving upon the quality and versatility of the lens systems including the O.I.S., Optical Image Stabilizer for motion picture and improved optical zoom, while keeping the retail cost down. Also, improve low light performance and flash. I'm thinking too--what about a small LED fill light option for close up video in low light? It might seem to be a sort of novelty but right now you've got people using the LCD on phones as a fill light.

Perhaps you'll hang on to a market at that level instead of the old concept of thinking the consumer will simply lay out another $150-$250+ for a new camera every year or so. They still might be willing to do that by the way, besides buying a new phone.

One additional note, at the high-end, the latest Lumix point and shoot, the DMC-ZS20(TZ30), has the addition of a GPS system to provide precise map data for your images. In case you forgot where you were. I could see this as useful though especially long into the future. I'm currently going through 100s of family photos many long before I was born and it would be really nice to know exactly when and where they had been taken. I guess my family wasn't always too keen on writing notes on the back of photos.

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