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How photo products (mostly didn't) evolve during 2011

In many respects, it feels as if we're in something of a holding pattern with photographic technology at the moment.

The successor to the full-frame Nikon D700 and Canon's follow-on to the EOS 5D Mark II were widely expected to put in an appearance of some sort during 2011. They didn't.

It appears as if the D800 will be a 36-megapixel camera that will launch in early 2012. What Canon's prosumer follow-on (5D Mark III?) will look like and when it will debut is anyone's guess. The combination of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami and Thailand flood tragedies contributed to significant delays throughout the photographic industry.

Perhaps the biggest shift in the photographic landscape during 2011 was the degree to which smartphones are displacing dedicated "snapshot" cameras. CBS Interactive

Other cameras were announced but are still not widely available, apparently due to the flooding in Thailand. For example, Sony's NEX-7 doesn't have a ship date. Canon's Powershot S100 is, as of this writing, only available in one finish--and nearly impossible to find at that. Thus, maybe the biggest camera story of 2011 was the giant hiccup that nature put in design cycles and manufacturing supply chains.

Nonetheless, the industry moved ahead.

Camera phones
For the mass market, the biggest story may be the inroads being made by camera phones.

The iPhone 4S is the poster child for this trend, but it's hardly unique. The cameras in models from HTC and Samsung also score highly relative to the norm of even a couple of years back. A camera phone won't replace a DSLR or even a high-end compact--especially in low light, situations that need a longer or wider lens, or when manual control is needed to get the best picture. That said, the 2011 class of camera phones take large strides toward producing photos that will content many casual photographers and videographers.

In fact, the results can be surprisingly good when the conditions aren't too challenging and expectations aren't too demanding. And this will surely put increasing pressure on snapshot cameras as a class.

Their own worst enemies
Camera manufacturers have done themselves no favors here. Camera phone features such as easy photo sharing and geotagging remain largely absent from dedicated cameras.

Some purists might applaud. Yet those same purists often resisted the addition of video to still cameras--video features that have become increasingly widely used and have no material impact on using cameras for still photography. As a data point, the full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II has proven a highly-popular prosumer DSLR while simultaneously (and rather unexpectedly) essentially creating a whole new category of video camera.

It's not as if camera makers are resisting such innovations out of any principle; if they were, they wouldn't stick features like direct printing on high-end DSLRs. No, this is simply a case of camera manufacturers being slow to understand trends in software and usage--as they long have been.

Advances in the higher end
That said, at the mid- to high-end, dedicated cameras continue to advance in ways that maintain differentiation. For example, Canon's Powershot S100 gives you a fair degree of manual control, has a zoom lens that zooms out to a 24mm-equivalent, can shoot photos in raw mode for more post-processing flexibility, lets you increase dynamic range using multiple HDR exposures, and even includes a GPS for geotagging pictures. And it does this in a shirt pocket-sized form-factor that doesn't give up much in the way of features relative to its larger G-series brethren. (One downgrade is the loss of a not-very-accurate optical viewfinder relative to the Canon G12, but that's a feature I've largely written off in this class of camera.)

For those willing to spend, say, $300 to $500 for features like more control, rugged/waterproof construction, longer zooms, and bigger (if still relatively small) sensors compared with camera phones, there's still a place for dedicated compact cameras.

EVIL lurks
The case for EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) cameras continue to be less clear, at least as products with broad appeal. The idea behind these camera is that, by eliminating the mirror used in SLRs, compact interchangeable lens cameras can be designed that have the flexibility of an SLR while approaching the size of larger compacts. As someone who does a lot of travel, I find the concept appealing. The execution? Less so.

Some products just seem to miss the mark as CNET's Stephen Shankland details in the case of Nikon's recent offerings. However, even in the case of a camera like the Sony NEX-7 that does indeed seem to get a lot of things right--large sensor, dial controls, built-in electronic viewfinder--you have the matter of the price tag that takes you into solid prosumer DSLR territory as you approach $2,000 for a system with a couple lenses. For most people, that makes it a replacement for a prosumer DSLR and not something extra to take on certain types of trips. But it has design and performance compromises relative to the (somewhat) bigger DSLRs.

But still...
Overall, the biggest market shift going on at the moment is probably the one away from dedicated cameras and toward the cameras in phones--at least for the casual shooters who make up so much of the market.

Certainly, 2011's product delays notwithstanding, higher-end cameras continue to improve. But the established product categories and form factors seem pretty well entrenched, and challengers like EVIL cameras remain niche products. This also holds true with software; no big changes have come along since Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture pioneered a new way to edit photos on a computer. Photo sharing on sites like Flickr, Facebook, and Picasa has likewise been slow to move forward in any basic ways. Potentially revolutionary technology such as that from Lytro remains unproven.

Whatever the combination of reasons, digital photography feels like it's in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment.