Camera manufacturers are gearing up to make their model announcements for the second half of 2010. Though there have been a few standouts in the first half, here are some features and models I'd like to see before 2011.
After years of experts saying "more megapixels don't matter" the camera manufacturers still use that specification to get consumers' attention. It works, too, otherwise you wouldn't find 14-megapixel sensors in the bulk of 2010 cameras, even low-end point-and-shoots like this Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W330. However, more megapixels does not translate into better image quality with compacts; it's actually the opposite.
To get more pixels on a tiny sensor, the pixels have to be smaller, which creates more noise and poorer dynamic range. To combat these things, the camera needs to do more image processing, which is not good for photo quality. On top of this, the actual file sizes are huge or heavily compressed with the latter potentially causing more image quality problems.
This is specsmanship at its worst and really needs to stop. And while I'm at it, the manufacturers should cease talking about digital zoom like its a usable feature.
Most non-dSLR cameras use a very small 1/2.3-inch type sensor. Compare it with the size of a full-frame or four-thirds sensors and you'll realize just how bad an idea it is to cram more pixels onto it. Generally speaking, larger sensors allow for larger pixels, which in turn can produce photos with higher dynamic range and lower noise.
The biggest hurdle here is price, because manufacturing a sensor that's twice the size, well, doubles the cost. Not good when you're trying to sell cheaper and cheaper cameras. As it stands, if you want the best photo quality you're going to have to pay for it.
I'm generally a fan of lithium ion rechargeable batteries in digital cameras--right up until I have a dead one and no way to replace it. Or worse, no way to recharge it, say, when you're camping. Kodak, Fujifilm, and Canon are the companies that still manage to make several models that take easy to find AA-size batteries. Unfortunately, the cameras are either large megazooms, such as Kodak's EasyShare Z981, or budget point-and-shoots. I'd really like to see a mid-range pocket camera that takes AA batteries.
I blame camera phones for the demise of optical viewfinders. People got so used to using a screen for framing photos that it felt antiquated to use a viewfinder. Canon is the last to have an optical viewfinder built into a compact camera and its remaining models might not be around too long. Whenever I ask why they're not being used anymore I get the same answer: cost. Consumers would rather have a larger LCD for playback than an optical viewfinder. What's funny to me is I have never gotten an e-mail asking for a camera with a larger screen, but weekly get them asking for one with a viewfinder.
Due to cost, size, or general feasibility, electronic viewfinders are used on megazoom cameras in place of optical viewfinders. Unfortunately, they're all pretty bad. Their low resolutions can make it difficult to frame shots. Their slow performance and the fact that they go black after every shot makes fast shooting a pain. And switching back and forth between the EVF and LCD is frustrating. Fujifilm attempts to solve that last one on its FinePix HS10 by having a sensor next to the eyepiece that switches when it senses you've pulled the camera to your eye. It mostly works, but the overall EVF experience is still disappointing for such an expensive bridge camera.
For some reason, fast lenses are found on only a few high-end compacts like Canon's PowerShot S90 and the Samsung TL500. The TL500's maximum aperture of f1.8 should make it great for low-light conditions as well as more artistic control over depth of field. It's the low-light thing that really makes it a good choice for compact cameras, which tend to drop off in image quality above ISO 200.
Sometimes I'm not even sure why camera manufacturers bother putting a flash on certain models. They're generally weak and poorly placed, because there's just no room on the body for them--not to mention the color cast by them. It's no wonder people don't bother turning them on. It would be nice to see more thoughtful design being put toward flash use, such as the tilting one on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1. It was underpowered for a dSLR flash, but the design idea was great. If you can't manage to improve photo quality at higher ISOs maybe it's time to start fixing the flash.
Most manufacturers have moved away from buttons for directly accessing settings, opting for never-ending menu systems or in cases such as the Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS, two menu systems. Though I don't necessarily mind having a second, smaller shooting-mode-specific menu, I don't like having to dig through 20 or more scene-shooting modes to find what I'm looking for. One of the nice things about certain touch-screen cameras I've tested: there may not be any hard buttons, but there are usually soft buttons for quickly changing ISO, white balance, or metering without having to dig through menus.
The midrange Canon PowerShot A590 IS was the last A-series camera to feature Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Manual shooting modes. It also had an optical viewfinder, an f2.6 lens, and AA batteries. Add in a decent auto mode and that's what I want to see--something simple and reasonably priced for a hobbyist.
Right now, to get a camera that has low shutter lag and shot-to-shot times less than 2 seconds you have to pay more than $250. Sony's cameras are the speediest point-and-shoots we've tested, but its fastest models are over $300. I want a quicker ultracompact, because one of the best reasons to get a camera so small is to keep it with you all the time for spur-of-the-moment shots. But those moments go fast, and unless you pony up for a higher-end camera you're going to miss them.
Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung rolled out compact megazooms in 2010 with built-in GPS receivers for geotagging photos. Well, I don't want a compact megazoom when I travel (though they do make excellent choices for that), I want a take-everywhere ultracompact. I'm sure battery life would take a pounding, but that's for the manufacturers to figure out.
When manufacturers couldn't compete on megapixels anymore, they seemed to switch to zoom range for specsmanship. In 2010, the range went up to a ridiculous 30x. However, a long lens and dSLR-like design doesn't improve photo quality or shooting performance, making the category disappointing on the whole. Manufacturers such as Nikon and Fujifilm are trying to make a decent bridge camera with available technologies, though in the end they've just been a lot of "wow" but without the image quality to make them worth recommending. Here's hoping someone can fix that before the year is out.
Anyone who has used a rugged camera, such as the Pentax Optio W90 pictured here, knows how freeing it is to shoot without fear of water damage or a little rough treatment. However, all of them use LCDs for framing shots, which is difficult to do in full sun, but even more so when the light is bouncing off water or snow. I have no idea what the expense would be or what would need to be done to keep it from shattering, but if there's a category that deserves a viewfinder, this is it.