Trends in digital photography: The not so good

The slow development of interchangeable lens compact cameras, the death of the optical viewfinder, and limited adoption of new standards are perhaps the most disappointing 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

There's a lot to like about how digital photography is evolving. But that doesn't mean every trend is positive. At a minimum, some technologies are taking longer to mature than some of us might wish.

Interchangeable Lens Compacts (ILCs) are a case in point. Significantly smaller than today's dSLRs, they're also referred to as micro-4/3 (after the mirrorless interchangeable lens standard used by many of these cameras) or the somewhat tongue in cheek EVIL which alludes to the Electronic Viewfinder that's an option for most models in this class.

The Canon Powershot G12 is an increasingly rare example of a compact camera with a separate optical viewfinder. Canon U.S.A.

ILCs are certainly an exciting concept. With a sensor size about five times the area of even a high-end compact camera combined with the ability to switch lenses, they promise high quality photos and a great deal of creative control. And that comes in a package that, if not quite pocketable, is nonetheless a lot smaller than a dSLR kit. I'm quite excited about the possibilities, especially for travel.

Cameras in this category are made today by the likes of Olympus and Panasonic. However, I find the products a bit disappointing--especially given that the cost can easily run higher than an entry dSLR with a larger sensor. For example, current electronic viewfinders are a clunky $100ish add-on that has to be mounted on the camera's hot-shoe, an awkward arrangement. They also use a contrast measurement autofocus system that can be slower than the phase detect system used in SLRs.

Furthermore, neither Canon nor Nikon have yet unveiled their plans for this category of camera. That's not to say those are the only manufacturers who can make top-notch gear. However, before buying into an interchangeable lens camera system, I'd prefer to know what the two big SLR makers have in mind.

Optical viewfinder, RIP? Optical viewfinders have largely disappeared from the market, excepting, of course, in SLRs. With an SLR, the light traveling into the lens is sent up to the viewfinder by way of a mirror which quickly flips out of the way when the shutter button is pressed. In the absence of a mirror, cameras historically used an optical viewfinder; it approximated the scene that would be captured through the lens when you looked through it.

At their best, optical viewfinders can be very high fidelity. However, good optical viewfinders are fairly costly to build and take up a certain amount of the camera's volume. They also aren't especially well-suited to zoom lenses. As a result, camera makers seem to be putting optical viewfinders on fewer and fewer camera models--and even the high-end compacts that have them, have relatively poor ones.

It's possible to dispense with an optical viewfinder on digital cameras because the light falling on the sensor can be routed to an LCD display on the back of the camera. While this display is certainly useful for communicating lots of information about light levels and so forth, it's often not the best thing to use as a viewfinder. LCD displays can be hard to see in bright light. Furthermore, holding out a camera at arms-length is just not as stable as holding it at eye level where it can be braced in various ways.

The solution will probably ultimately be cheaper, smaller, higher--quality integrated electronic viewfinders. However, I wonder if by then so many people will have been weaned off viewfinders that they won't be included even in cameras that would greatly benefit from them.

Standards for digital image formats. When you take a picture with your digital camera, it gets stored as either a JPEG-format image or a raw image. JPEG images are processed using the camera's hardware. Raw images are the (largely) unprocessed output from the camera's sensor. Shooting JPEG gives you smaller files with less post-processing needed. Shooting raw assumes you will be post-processing in software and gives you the most flexibility to do so. (CNET's Stephen Shankland discusses the trade-offs in more detail in this post.)

Neither of these formats are entirely satisfactory.

While JPEG is certainly satisfactory for many purposes, it's worth noting that this is a standard that dates back to 1992. The Joint Photographic Experts Group introduced JPEG 2000 over 10 years ago but it has never been adopted to any significant degree. For its part, raw format isn't actually a format at all but, rather, a number of different formats that are often proprietary and tied to a specific camera manufacturer. Among other downsides, this means that new camera models often require an update to image editing software.

There are options. JPEG XR (originally Microsoft's HD Photo) is another effort through the Joint Photographic Experts Group to update the original JPEG standard. Among its advantages over JPEG is greater dynamic range--the span between the brightest brights and darkest darks in a photo. However, although it passed an ISO/IEC Final Draft International Standard (FDIS) ballot in 2009 and thereby became as ISO standard, it still isn't widely used.

The best hope for standardizing raw formats is probably Adobe's Digital Negative Format (DNG). Although it's used by some digital cameras, such as those made by Ricoh, DNG remains primarily a format used by Adobe software products. (For example, I convert my raw Canon and Nikon files to DNG when I import them into Adobe Lightroom.) Adobe has submitted DNG to ISO for incorporation into their revision of TIFF/EP.

Standardization efforts notwithstanding, DNG adoption in cameras would require camera manufacturers that currently use proprietary formats to buy-in. And there's been little indication to date that most of the big players are ready to do so.

In a way, the standards situation in digital photography highlights something that is almost a truism in high tech. It's often not the technology issues that are the hardest. Where we have some frustrating limits to what's possible in certain classes of cameras, we can be reasonably confident that those limits will tend to come down sooner rather than later. Things that require widespread agreement among the companies in an industry? Not so much.