Trends in digital photography: The good

The end of the megapixel wars, nondestructive editing software, and high-end point-and-shoots get my votes for positive trends in digital photography.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
4 min read

A photographic landmark of sorts took place at the end of 2010. Dwayne's Photo accepted the last roll of Kodachrome slide film for processing. Kodachrome was long a favorite of many professionals and advanced amateurs but required a unique and complex development process; Dwayne's was the last lab to provide this service.

Digital has replaced film for most, pros and amateurs alike. And it's not standing still. The current trends are mostly positive--which isn't to say there aren't a few product and technology areas that couldn't stand improvement.

Here I look at the good. A future post will look at the not so good.

Nondestructive image editing programs like Adobe's Lightroom are one of the more positive trends we've seen in digital photography over the past few years. Gordon Haff

The megapixel wars subside. For a time, camera makers vigorously proclaimed how their camera sensors had more megapixels than the competition. This made some sense in the early days of digital photography when cameras really didn't have enough sensor sites to deliver the resolution needed for making even modest-sized prints at high quality. However, for most purposes, more pixels don't much improve image quality past a certain point and crowding more pixels into a given area means that individual pixels have to be smaller.

The relationship between resolution, pixel size, noise, and dynamic range is far more complex than simple sound bites can capture. Smaller pixels don't always mean more noise--which is a particular problem when sensitivity is cranked up to shoot in dim light. But there are tradeoffs and those were hard for camera designers to make optimally so long as the camera's megapixel count was front and center in every advertisement.

It was noteworthy therefore when, in late 2009, Canon revealed that its new Canon Powershot G11 model would actually have a lower megapixel count than its predecessor. This event played a big part in reducing the emphasis placed on megapixels. (At least in cameras; the megapixels war rages on with mobile phones.) And this, in turn, is one of the factors that has allowed for cameras with fast and low-noise sensors that can take quality pictures in very little light.

The photo editing revolution. Whatever nostalgia I might have for black-and-white darkroom work, digital editing has a lot of good things going for it. But relatively new image-editing programs, most notably Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture, truly transform organizing and touching up large catalogs of photos.

A program like Photoshop works by changing the values of the pixels making up an image and then saving the changed image to disk. This type of editing provides a very high level of control but it also means that each edited version of a photo needs to be saved as a separate file. In addition, while such programs have various tools to automate a set of changes to a group of photos, these tools aren't especially intuitive or easy to use. This shouldn't be especially surprising; Photoshop was developed primarily for graphics professionals who might typically spend several hours getting a single image just-so.

Lightroom and Aperture take a completely different approach. They are "nondestructive." This means that editing actions are saved separately from the photo; they're only applied directly to a photo's pixels if the photo is exported--for example, to upload to a photo-sharing site.

You do give up much of the ability to make changes to just part of a photo rather than to the photo as a whole. For that fine-grained level of control, you still need to use a traditional editing program. However, I seldom find myself needing to do so. These programs really do deliver a revolutionary experience. If you're a halfway serious photographer, you really owe it to yourself to at least give a free trial a whirl. (Aperture retails for $199 and Lightroom for $299.)

High-end point-and-shoots. In the twilight of film as a mass-market medium, one of the annoying product holes--to me at least--was the space that used to be filled by mid-priced rangefinder cameras like the Canon QL17. These were fairly compact and had lots of manual control. However, as autofocus, zoom lenses, and other modern conveniences became ubiquitous, the camera market largely bifurcated into small point-and-shoots primarily designed for unsophisticated users to take snapshots and much bulkier SLRs offering the full range of control.

Those of us who wanted something that was both physically small and offered a reasonable degree of control over aperture, shutter speed, and so forth were pretty much stuck with buying used cameras. To be sure, this wasn't a bad option with film cameras except that some of the more interesting camera models were also highly prized collectibles, and therefore expensive.

A number of camera models fill this space quite well in the digital realm. The Canon Powershot Gx line was arguably first but Nikon (with the Coolpix P7000) and Panasonic (with the Lumix LX5) now have competitive products with similar capabilities. They're pocketable (with a big pocket) but they offer a high level of manual control. Their sensors are small and they're still a bit sluggish if you're used to a digital SLR, but each model iteration gets a bit better.

People with different needs doubtless find other trends interesting. For example, a lot of videographers love that video has come to full-frame dSLRs because of the quality and depth-of-field control they provide. And we're seeing early examples of enhancing dynamic range in-camera by taking multiple exposures and automatically correcting exposures for known lens distortions. There's a lot happening.