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Q&A: Canon's camera tech guru Chuck Westfall

Nikon and Sony are bringing competition to the full-frame SLR camera market that Canon once had to itself. Canon's Chuck Westfall sees imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.

LAS VEGAS--Two's company, three's a crowd, and Canon's Chuck Westfall is a lot less lonely these days.

Canon once was the sole camera company offering a digital SLR whose sensor is the size of a full frame of 35mm film, a technology that can increase the performance advantage and price penalty that SLR cameras already have compared with compact cameras. In November, though, Nikon began selling its full-frame rival, the D3, and last week Sony said it will launch its own full-frame competitor by the end of 2008.

Chuck Westfall Canon

Westfall is a camera tech guru and the technical adviser for Canon USA's professional products marketing division. In his 25 years at Canon, he's amassed an encyclopedic knowledge not only of official camera specs but also deeply buried engineering details.

Westfall shared his opinions about the full-frame market and other camera trends during the Photo Marketing Association trade show here. He also discussed fuel cells to replace batteries, flash memory technology, OLED displays, and geotagging.

Talking tech might sound like fun if you represent the company that leads market share both for compact cameras and in the higher-end SLRs, but Westfall also has had to deal with unpleasant autofocus trouble that's afflicted the company's $4,500 photojournalist-oriented EOS-1D Mark III during some shooting conditions. A quality and reputation problem is the last thing a camera maker wants for a model aimed squarely at the professional photographer market that Canon dominates but that Nikon is aggressively courting.

Though Canon is repairing affected 1D Mark III models and has issued a firmware update, the issue still hasn't gone away: Rob Galbraith, the photographer and consultant whose tests brought the problem to light, still believes the 1D Mark III's predecessor has better autofocus, and he reported Monday that Canon is working on yet another fix.

Read on for Westfall's response to the autofocus issue and other thoughts.

CNET Sony now has said it'll join Canon and Nikon in offering a full-frame camera--its flagship 24.6-megapixel SLR due to launch by the end of the year.
Westfall: It's quite flattering the other companies have recognized what we've known for years--that full-frame is quite a desirable imaging format. I think the full-frame market is set to expand in 2008. There's no doubt about it.

With Nikon and now Sony adding weight to the full-frame market, what role is there for the in-between sensor size, APS-H? (It's about halfway between the full-frame sensors used in the high-end SLRs and the APS-C sensors use in the top-selling models such as the Rebel XTi and 40D. The APS-H is used in the 1D Mark III and its predecessors.)
Westfall: When we introduced APS-H in 2001 with the original EOS-1D, the idea was to compete against other professional DSLRs with APS-C. In that respect it has been extremely successful. At that point it was about what the competition had to offer. It's only been in the last six months that there has been an alternative. We've had a good long run with APS-H.

Going forward, it remains to be seen whether it will continue to be a desirable format. We're not ready to say it's over.

Is there a unique advantage APS-H has over full-frame sensors besides price? Nikon's D3 is a full-frame competitor to the 1D Mark III at about the same cost.
Westfall: At this point, no. Price would be the only thing.

Do you think you've resolved the 1D Mark III autofocus issue?
The hardware fix and firmware update has effectively brought the camera within our design specifications. Under the vast majority of study conditions, the camera is functioning exactly the way we expected it to.

So is it better at autofocus than the 1D Mark II N (the camera's predecessor)?
Westfall: Overall, yes. The system has a lot more to it. There are improvements to the Mark III's autofocus sensor, with 19 cross-type focusing points throughout the frame compared to 7 in the center for the 1D Mark II N. This is an area Rob Galbraith's tests did not address. And there are a lot more customization settings to be able to tweak autofocus accuracy according to the way you shoot--focus priority versus release priority for example.

That said, we are continuing to investigate. We're not disputing anything Rob wrote--he's made a fair and objective test. We have no argument except that the 1D Mark III is a lot closer (to the 1D Mark II N's autofocus performance) in overall performance than his severe tests indicate at first glance and that he doesn't test the full range of conditions. There's more to it.

Geotagging is a hot subject, and much of the discussion at the PMA show seems to have moved from when it will arrive in cameras rather than whether it will. When do you think it will?
Westfall: The desirability of that feature is quite clear. You can see reasons why--classifying, sorting, and searching photos--especially with the advances in technology starting to appear that is taking advantage of the (location) information. That's why we started putting in the optional capability with the wireless transmitters (accessories available for higher-end Canon SLRs).

How far away is the geotagging era?
Westfall: There's no doubt we'll see cameras with built-in GPS within the next two years, possibly sooner. I'm not able to give guidance regarding Canon specifically.

Are you getting pressure to add geotagging support from Web sites such as Google and Yahoo that enable users to make use of geotagged photos?
Westfall: Mostly we're hearing from the vertical markets--professional, commercial, and industrial applications. And the military.

Some envision geotagging as an aspect of "autotagging," in which a rich set of metadata is recorded when the photograph is taken. It might be possible to combine face recognition with autotagging to label photos automatically.
With our PowerShot line, we started autotagging a year ago. We call it "My Category." It has a total of five or six presets and three customizable tags. When you choose a scene mode, it associates for example a "landscape" tag. It can be done in review, too--you can apply it after the fact. For a camera with face recognition, we know when people are present. This will become much more valuable in the future. Facial recognition is a very powerful feature.

Are there any developments in battery technology?
Westfall: Lithium-ion is still dominant. Battery manufacturers have been able to increase the storage density lately. The Canon Rebel XSi battery has a capacity of 1080 milliamp-hours compared to 720 for the Rebel XTi (whose battery is about the same size).

Is there anything more radical on the horizon?
Westfall: Fuel cells. Within the same physical space, you have maybe twice the capacity as lithium-ion batteries. There's a lot of incentive to deliver that. And it's environmentally friendly--it's disposable and refillable.

Samsung is showing its NV24 HD camera, which uses an OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display. Is Canon planning on making that shift?
Westfall: Yes, definitely. We began exploring OLED several years ago. We showed in 2005 a prototype EOS-5D SLR. It was demonstrably brighter, had better color accuracy, and lower power consumption.

A prototype Canon EOS-5D SLR using a OLED display. Canon

It's common knowledge that Canon is investing in OLED manufacturing ability, making big acquisitions last year. We have the infrastructure needed to bring this online.

And unlike with LCDs, it means you have more of the technology that actually ships in a camera under the Canon roof?
Westfall: Right. We're looking to implement OLED in all our consumer products: digital still cameras, camcorders, and inkjet printers.

There's a new version of CompactFlash memory cards under development that uses the Serial ATA technology rather than the current parallel ATA. You guys use CompactFlash in your SLRs. Will that technology catch on?
Westfall: It remains to be seen. What drives the market is cost and performance issues and availability. That's one reason we elected to wait until now to switch to SD (memory cards) for our Rebel line. The availability of SD cards is better now than even a year ago, and people are more comfortable with it.

I was interested that the 1Ds Mark III has an SD card slot in it as well as a CompactFlash slot.
Westfall: We actually started that with the 1D Mark II in 2004. We were able to add a second slot without changing the overall size of the camera. Now you see a second slot capability on other cameras.

What's changing in the compact camera market?
Westfall: The pricing on these cameras will continue to decline. It's become a more commoditized market, but it's bigger. The forecast for the next three years is it will continue to grow. CIPA (the Camera and Imaging Products Association) forecasts global shipments of 126 million units in 2010 compared to 93 million last year. The challenge is to continue to expand the feature set in the face of price erosion while maintaining profitability. We've got good technology and the highest level of profitability in the digital camera market.

Who's the top competitor?
Westfall: Sony is a very strong competitor. Once you get past them, there are a lot of other companies in there.

Are you worried about Sony entering the SLR market, too?
Westfall: Between us and Nikon, we've got 90 percent of the SLR market. Sony is only in the 5 percent range so far.

With pricing pressures, will you outsource more manufacturing to outside companies?
Westfall: That's not for us. We've increased our Japanese facility for better R&D and manufacturing. We have some outside manufacturing, especially in the point-and-shoot cameras. But we doubled the capacity of our main camera plant in the last two years. To control costs, we're developing more automation in manufacturing.

The jump from 2 megapixels to 4 megapixels is significant, but the jump from 10 to 12 is less dramatic. Is the megapixel race over?
Westfall: We're trying to upgrade the entire camera. The megapixels rating is only one thing. When upgrading, you have to look at more aspects.

Update 5:40 p.m. PST: Westfall requested a few minor changes to his quotations for clarity, such as changing "they" to "battery manufacturers," and I obliged.

Update at 8 a.m. PST on February 7: Westfall's title at Canon has changed and been duly noted.