Olympus: 12 megapixels is enough for most folks

Most folks don't need more than 12 megapixels, an Olympus SLR leader says, so now is the time to improve other qualities. Also: expect big changes in autofocus.

A correction has been made to this story. See below for details.

LAS VEGAS--Olympus has declared an end to the megapixel race.

"Twelve megapixels is, I think, enough for covering most applications most customers need," said Akira Watanabe, manager of Olympus Imaging's SLR planning department, in an interview here at the Photo Marketing Association (PMA). "We have no intention to compete in the megapixel wars for E-System," Olympus' line of SLR cameras, he said.

Instead, Olympus will focus on other characteristics such as dynamic range, color reproduction, and a better ISO range for low-light shooting, he said.

Increasing the number of megapixels on cameras is an easy selling point for camera makers, in part because it's a simple concept for people to understand. Even though having more megapixels can enable larger prints and enlargement of subject matter through cropping, adding megapixels comes with some drawbacks.

For one thing, smaller pixels can mean more noisy speckles at the pixel level and can reduce the dynamic range, so brighter areas wash out and darker areas become swaths of black. For another, images take more room on memory cards, hard drives, and Web servers, and cameras need more powerful image processors to handle them. And yesteryear's cameras already had plenty of pixels for making 8x10-inch prints, a size few people exceed.

Akira Watanabe, leader of Olympus' SLR planning department
Akira Watanabe, leader of Olympus' SLR planning department Olympus

Camera and sensor makers have been steadily improving digital cameras to compensate for the drawbacks, though. The space on the sensor that's devoted to electronics rather than light gathering has been reduced. Other improvements have come with the tiny microlenses that help each sensor's pixel to gather more light and with the color filters that determine whether a pixel records red, green, or blue.

Some still need more megapixels
Olympus' view is focused chiefly on mainstream photographers. Studio and commercial photographers taking pictures for magazines certainly have a need for more megapixels, Watanabe said.

"We don't think 20 megapixels is necessary for everybody. If a customer wants more than 20 megapixels, he should go to the full-frame models," Watanabe said.

The sensors in Olympus' SLRs, an element of the Four Thirds camera system also used by Panasonic, are smaller than those in mainstream SLRs from market leaders Canon and Nikon and much smaller than those in full-frame cameras. Those employ sensors the size of a frame of 35mm film, 36x24mm.

The 12-megapixel view isn't a new one at Olympus.

"I personally believed, before starting the E-System, that 12 was enough," Watanabe said. "We interviewed many professional photographers, people in studios, about how many they needed in the future. Before we started, the system, we had a rough idea we'd be at a plateau at 12 megapixels. We gradually increased the pixel count," with the newer Olympus SLRs now reaching that level.

Autofocus future
Watanabe had another bold projection: autofocus will change dramatically in SLRs.

Today's SLRs use a "phase detect" autofocus subsystem in which some light is diverted from the viewfinder to sensors in the bottom of the camera. These sensors enable the rapid autofocus that helps make SLRs much more responsive than compact cameras, which use a "contrast detect" method that analyzes the data from the image sensor itself.

Watanabe, though, believes image sensor-based autofocus will outperform phase-detect systems in the future. That's important not just for compact cameras, but also for SLRs that today often have an awkward problem with composing a shot using the camera's LCD: when the sensor is in use to run the display, the phase-detect autofocus subsystem can't be used. That means live view on SLRs today is typically a frustratingly slow process.

"In terms of speed, phase detect is faster. But imager autofocus will exceed phase detect," Watanabe said.

And speed isn't of course the only factor. "In terms of accuracy, imager-based autofocus is much more advantageous. It directly focuses on the surface itself," the exact location where the image will eventually be recorded. "Phase detect focuses not on the real surface but on a virtual surface," the focusing subsystem reached via a moving mirror.

Imager-based autofocus doesn't require the full use of the image sensor area, so it doesn't directly increase power consumption concerns, he said. In Olympus's new midrange E-30 SLR, for example, autofocus uses only a few points on the sensor when autofocusing in live view mode.

Correction 8:50 a.m. March 6: Two details in this story were changed at Olympus' request. Customers who want more than 20 megapixels should look to full-frame cameras, and imager-based autofocus will outpace phase-detect autofocus in the future, but not necessarily soon, Watanabe said. In addition, the headline was clarified March 10 to reflect that Olympus' position applies to many but not all camera customers.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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