On 3rd Generation Digital Cameras

Apple Quicktake 100

Apple Quicktake 100

Wow! Trey Ratcliff over at Stuck in Customs seems to have started a huge debate (both on his blog and on Google+) by stating his view that the DSLR is on the way out as a form factor, to be replaced by 3rd Generation digital cameras – mirrorless cameras like the 1 cameras. While many are vehemently disagreeing with him, many are also agreeing and I fall into the agreeing camp. writes a good summary of the negative comments here.

One of the first generation of digital cameras was the Apple Quicktake 100. It was designed by Kodak-irony anyone? The Quicktake 100 was introduced in 1994 and the Quicktake 150 was introduced in May 1995. The Quicktake 150 was the first digital camera I used. Back then I worked in the environmental remediation field. My boss felt we could take photos of environmental issues while in the field and then e-mail them – remember phone modems? – back to the head office for review without the need for a team of people to travel to each site. The highest resolution photos were 640×480 (=0.3 megapixels) at 24-bit color depth. Skeptical at first, I really go to like the convenience of the camera but it clearly wasn’t going to replace my 5 (A2E in the USA).

Canon EOS 5D Mark II">Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Jump forward the the Quicktake line evolved into the point-and-shoot cameras (that are now on the down-slide as mobile phone cameras rise up. 18 years after the Quicktake 100, an Apple iPhone 4S camera has a resolution of 8 megapixels.)

The second generation of digital cameras are the modern DLSRs, like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II (B&H) that I use as my primary camera. These developed as evolutions of the SLR film camera. Inside, they still have a mechanical shutter and a mechanical mirror. It’s the shutter and mirror that provide the audible ‘click’ (and also introduce camera shake) when one captures and image. And it’s these mechanical components that dictate the size of a DLSR and the number of frames per second it can capture.

Nikon 1">Nikon 1 J1

Nikon 1 J1

So the third generation is Trey’s term for the ‘mirrorless’ camera with interchangeable lenses, like the new Nikon 1 (B&H) range and the micro-four-thirds cameras with interchangeable lenses. Free of the mirror and the mechanical shutter, the size of the camera can be reduced and the rate of capture can be drastically increased by using a digital shutter.

I agree with Trey that there won’t be a great deal more innovation in the DSLR field, that future innovation will come in the 3rd generation direction. The specs of the Nikon D4 (B&H), recently announced and the Canon EOS-1D X (B&H) are perhaps signs of just that.

I’m sure many of the people arguing Trey are looking at the investment they have made and thinking, ‘Here we go again’. For the 3rd generation of cameras will need a 3rd generation of lenses since they’ll need to focus light on a sensor that sits at a shorter distance from the end of the lens than currently. For me it’s akin to when Canon introduced the EOS line. I had to wave bye-bye to my Canon T90s and all my FD lenses and invest anew.

Now Trey’s point captured in the video interview with Robert Scoble was that he wasn’t going to be investing in any more DSLR bodies or lenses. He senses change coming and will save his resources now to invest in the 3rd Generation when it has matured. With most images viewed on a screen or a fraction of a magazine page, the 21 megapixels of my Canon EOS 5d Mark II are hardly necessary for that resolution.

But what if we go a step further? Readers of my blog will remember my recent post on the Lytro light field camera. Elsewhere we read of flexible displays, displays that are as thin as a piece of card. So where does that take the revolution?

Perhaps it’s not just the DLSR that has nearly reached the summit of the mountain but also the print – both in visual media and hung on the wall. For if a screen as thin as a piece of card can be hung on the wall, why limit yourself with a still image? Why not instead display a clip? Instead of looking at a still of that exotic beach, why not clip where the waves roll in and out and the palm leaves shimmer in the breeze? Why a static shot of the carrousel when you can have a clip of it whirling away, seeing the joy on the faces of new riders as they come into view?

And where does the fit in this? Well you’ll be able to interact dynamically with the pictures on your walls. Viewing photography will expand from being a purely visual pursuit to a dynamic, tactile pursuit also. Instead of just admiring great photography, the viewer will interact with it!
So while many commenters bemoaned Trey’s statements, I think they stop short at considering only the capture of the image and don’t take it through to the changes that are coming in the viewing of the image.

After all, back in 1995 when I first handled that Apple Quicktake 150 I don’t think many of us were expecting within 20 years we’d be carrying 8 megapixel digital cameras that are only 9.3 mm thick in our pockets, or that those cameras would have a phone embedded in them!

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