The arrival of the first digital cameras changed the rules of the game. Until that moment the film cameras had experienced a relatively slow development and cemented, above all, in the fine adjustment of its mechanical elements and in the improvement of the film itself. Of course, the latest generations of those cameras had electronic components that did experience a remarkable development, anticipating what would come later hand in hand with digital cameras.
The change of paradigm began to be forged in 1975. That year Cromemco, a California microcomputer company, launched Cyclops, a photographic camera unanimously considered the first fully digital . It had a MOS sensor of only 32 x 32 pixels (equivalent to 0.001 megapixels) and could be connected to any microcomputer that had an S-100 bus, which, curiously, was born as part of the Altair 8800, which is usually considered the first commercial personal computer .
A more sedate technological development than that to which we are accustomed
Digital cameras did not begin to popularize until the end of the 20th century, but their birth gave electronics a much greater prominence than it had in the last generations of film cameras. This change led to the digital cameras being forced into a pace of development and innovation faster than that which had historically been experienced by film cameras. The unbridled race to increase the megapixels that was in force until very recently, and that still oozes from time to time, illustrates this trend a thousand times.
Digital cameras evolve at a slower pace than other electronic devices, such as smartphones or TVs
Even so, digital cameras do not evolve, even today, at the same pace as other electronic devices, such as smartphones or televisions, among other possible examples. This degree of development, although it is slower than that to which other consumer electronics products have accustomed us, is far from negligible, which as consumers forces us to catch up once we have made the decision to get hold of them. a new digital camera. At least if we want to get one that is as “as resistant to the future” as possible.
The objective of this article is, precisely, to identify those elements of the digital cameras that are most evolving to know as accurately as possible what the market currently offers us . And also so that we can intuit what will come in the future. We think it is the best way to help you choose with more guarantees, and, above all, to help you find the camera that best suits your needs. Of course, as long as you want to go a step beyond what the integrated camera offers you on your smartphone.
Compact cameras have a very “gray” present and a very “black” future
The battle with smartphones is lost. In fact, traditional compact cameras lost it a long time ago; just at the moment in which a good part of the users began to do without them and to take our photographs using the camera of our mobile phone. And the picture does not seem at all that it will change in the future. This evident tendency has caused that most camera manufacturers turn to the development of models with higher performance. The ambition to get there where the cameras of our phones are not comfortable.
Interchangeable optics, large zooms , high quality stabilization, ample flexibility … These are the tricks used by current cameras to think about them and let’s take a look at our smartphones for a moment. And in this field it is evident that they are the models of bridge type , that are compact with fixed optics , wide focal range and performance between basic compacts and advanced digital cameras; the CSC (compact system cameras) or without mirror and the DSLR, which can best defend against the onslaught of mobiles.
For this reason, most of the features that we will see below make sense in these segments of cameras, and not so much in the compact ones of the input and medium ranges, which are the most affected by mobile phones. And also those that leave less space for innovation. Let’s go into matter.
How is a camera resistant to the future?
A note that seems important to me before going ahead, and that surely many of you already know: the three components that have a direct impact on the quality of the images that we obtain with a camera are the optics, the sensor and the processing engine . In fact, their cooperation is so intimate that it is often not easy to define the extent to which each of them contributes to the final result. Even so, it is interesting to note that two of them are elements of an electronic nature, and, therefore, susceptible to being overwhelmed by that maelstrom of constant technological development to which other devices of consumer electronics have accustomed us.
Your heart should be a sensor of high sensitivity and low noise
Megapixels are out of our discussion for a compelling reason: most of the cameras on the market exceed the resolution that we photographers need only occasionally print our snapshots. Or never. We can illustrate this situation in a very simple way. If we use a TV with 4K UHD panel to see our photographs, which is a quite realistic scenario today, it is enough that our camera has a resolution of 8 Megapixels(3.840 x 2.160 pixels = 8.294.400 pixels ≈ 8 Megapixels) to enjoy our captures in a satisfactory way. Most of the cameras, at least those of a certain quality, have sensors that exceed this resolution, so we can even print our photographs on supports of a certain size without their quality suffering.
The manufacturers seem to be aware that users are no longer coaxed by the resolution because we know that our needs in this field are full for years, so they are striving to fine tune two parameters of the sensors in which they still have margin of improvement: sensitivity and noise . When light, which is the real raw material of our photographs, it is relatively easy for a modern camera to offer us a successful result. However, when light is scarce the level of detail can be seriously damaged and the noise can be increased significantly, ruining our shots.
Fortunately, the “mega-pixel war” was overcome long ago. The challenge now is to increase sensitivity and reduce noise, among other parameters with room for improvement in which brands are working
The challenge is to offer good results when the conditions of capture are not optimal. And an effective way to increase the native sensitivity of the sensor and reduce the noise requires increasing the size of the photo diodes , which are the cells of the sensor that are responsible for capturing the light, although at the cost of reducing the resolution. This is the strategy used by many brands currently in their cameras, although it is not the only one. Often they also improve the manufacturing techniques of their sensors and optimize their architecture so that they perform better when the environmental conditions are not favorable.
Some cameras allow us to work with a very high sensitivity, but keeping the noise level under control
The technological development in this field has made possible the appearance of cameras capable of offering us a very high sensitivity and a very low noise level. A model that illustrates this panorama is the Sony A7S II , a camera that offers a maximum ISO sensitivity of 409,600 and is able to keep noise under control with very high ISO values. However, this is a somewhat extreme value that few models can aspire to. For this reason we can take as a reference a bit more realistic the extended ISO value offered by other quality cameras today, which can reach ISO 51,200. It is a good objective to aspire to as long as the noise remains under control.
Of course, noise and sensitivity are not the only features of a camera sensor that matter, but today they represent one of the great challenges that brands are facing because their impact on the quality of shots is very important . And it is not easy to improve these parameters. Other characteristics, such as color, depth, level of detail or lack of moiré effect, are pretty well “tied” by the main brands when we get a camera of a certain size.
You must also have a high performance processor
The role of the processing engine of a digital camera goes far beyond the mere post-processing of the information generated in the digital domain by the image sensor. A well implemented process can increase the perceived resolution, minimize the noise, improve the level of detail, fine tune the color … As you can see, it can have a very positive impact on the final quality of our snapshots.
But, in addition to doing all this, the image processor is crucial when it comes to increasing the autofocus speed, improving the ability of continuous shooting, minimizing the latency of the electronic shutter, reducing the time the camera is turned on, increasing the accuracy of continuous focus, etc. In this field given its versatility is not easy to define precisely what characteristics should have a good processing engine, but it is interesting that users are aware of its importance and know what processes are involved so that we are able to assess whether our next camera It has a processor capable of solving not only our current needs, but also those that we will have in the future.
The focus of the present and the future is hybrid; if you have it, much better
Fortunately, the hybrid approach is fully consolidated in digital cameras of a certain level. I have written “fortunately” because it has shown us in a resounding way that its features are superior to those of the auto-focus by contrast difference used by the first digital cameras. The hybrid approach is characterized by combining the focus by difference of contrast of digital compact cameras and the phase detection approach of the DSLR.
The hybrid approach combines the advantages of the contrast difference and phase detection approaches
These three types of approach (contrast difference, phase detection and hybrid) are passive systems in which the camera acts by analyzing the information it receives from the environment. The alternative is the active focusing systems, in which the camera emits some type of signal (ultrasound, infrared light, etc.) that is reflected in the surrounding objects and bounces back to the auto-focus sensor and allows it to perform The calculations you need to perform to focus the image correctly.
The problem that the contrast difference approach has is that it is usually slow . This is the reason why we are interested in our camera not only having this system. To focus, the processor analyzes the complete image and identifies those areas where there is a sudden change of lighting, and this is usually a costly process in terms of the time it is necessary to invest in it.
The phase detection approach requires the presence of an additional sensor , regardless of the camera’s sensor, or an image sensor that can carry out the functions of the main sensor and the focus sensor. It is a complex process, so if you want to know it in detail, you’ll have to do a little research.
The focus by phase detection is faster than the one that works by contrast difference, but it is also more complex, more expensive and can be affected by the problems of deviation from the exact focus point we want to use ( back focus / front focus ). In any case, what we are interested in taking into account now is that more and more manufacturers are betting on the hybrid approach because it combines the advantages of the two systems of passive approach that we have talked about, offering us a very precise and very fast approach that can make a difference, for example, when we focus on objects that move quickly. If our camera has it, it will be great because it will be better equipped to solve our needs in the future.
Better if the stabilization is in the body and is hybrid
The stabilization system is important insofar as it is crucial to avoid the blurring that usually appears at the edges of objects when there is trepidation during exposure. This problem is more damaging as we increase the exposure time, as is logical. Fortunately, digital camera manufacturers have been “putting the batteries” for several years to implement effective solutions to this problem .
Currently one of the most satisfactory strategies, and still with room for improvement in the future, is the displacement of the sensor in several axes (normally five). Sony and Olympus have been using this technology for years , and in our tests it has shown us to have very satisfactory results. In addition, this technique, which is based on the mechanical displacement of the sensor, can be combined with the electronic correction of the frame , which allows the motion blur to be even more imperceptible.
The pity is that this stabilization system is complex and expensive, so it is usually only present in the most advanced digital cameras. Even so, it is likely that little by little it will become cheaper and may reach cheaper models , so it is interesting that we are aware of what it offers us to have it in our sights now and in the future.
The electronic viewfinder: high resolution and low latency
The electronic viewfinder is one of the components that has improved the most during the last years. Unfortunately all the compacts, bridge and CSC do not have it because it is a complex element that has a direct impact on the price. And it is a pity because, if it is well implemented, it is very useful The DSLR do not need it because its system of mirrors (known as pentaprism) allows the light that receives the optics to be transported to the viewfinder, which in these cameras is optical and not electronic.
The effort that brands are making with regards to electronic viewers has as main objectives to increase their resolution, reduce latency and improve color reproduction. The latest generations of cameras reflect that every time we have more quality electronic viewfinders, but the truth is that they still have room to improve . Nowadays a good viewer of this type usually has a size close to 0.5 inches and an approximate resolution of 3.7 million points. Many have more modest specifications, but these figures provide us with an experience closer to that offered by an optical viewfinder.
Of the restitution of the images is usually commissioned, and it is desirable, an OLED panel that enjoys the same tricks associated with televisions that use this technology: a very high native contrast and a rich and reliable color restitution. Another essential feature that a good electronic viewer must offer is a minimum latency . This parameter measures the time lag that occurs from the moment in which an action captured by the image sensor takes place until it causes an effect on the electronic viewfinder screen.
Ideally, this time span should be minimal so that we can capture the moment we are looking for with precision, a crucial quality in disciplines such as nature photography or sports photography. A low latency that can serve as a reference when assessing whether the one that offers a specific electronic viewer is or is not acceptable is 0.005 s . This figure is very good, but if the latency is even lower, the better.
This is the wireless connectivity that we can now demand: NFC, Bluetooth and WiFi
The cameras do not have to remain outside the wireless connection technologies that we usually use in other devices. And, fortunately, they do not. Many of the cameras that we can find currently on the market have Bluetooth 4.0, 4.1 or 4.2 connectivity and WiFi 802.11n or ac . The first standard is useful for, for example, controlling our camera from a smartphone or a tablet. And the WiFi can come to us from pearls to update the firmware or to upload our photographs to our repository on the Internet directly, among other possibilities.
NFC technology is not as widespread in cameras as WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, but it is interesting because it avoids tedious configuration processes
The NFC ( Near Field Communication ) technology is not as lavish as the two wireless connections that we have just seen, but it is also interesting because it allows us to connect our camera to our smartphone or tablet, bringing them closer . If both devices are compatible with NFC we just have to place them very close together for a few seconds, and both will negotiate the WiFi connection automatically and transparently for us. We will not have to configure anything. Comfortable, right?
If video is a priority, 4K is just the starting point
The video recording capacity of some cameras rivals that of many specific models for professional applications . Proposals such as the Sony A7S II or the Panasonic Lumix GH5 , among other options, remind us that for a relatively high but reasonable investment, we can get a device that provides us with features that until recently were only within reach of professional video cameras.
Some cameras offer us the possibility to record 4K UHD video with professional quality
Recording with 4K UHD resolution and cadences of 50 and 60 images per second is just our starting point in this usage scenario. In addition we can require that our camera is compatible with the XAVC S format, which allows us to record 4K video with a speed of up to 100 Mbps to increase the level of detail and minimize noise. It is also interesting to have profiles like S-Gamut3.Cine, which allows to reproduce the DCI-P3 color space, or with the S-Log curves, which have been designed to simulate the visual finishing of traditional films in digital cinema, among other possibilities.
Regarding the sub-sampling of color, it is interesting to have the 10-bit 4: 2: 2 encoding , which is commonly used in the production of film content. And if we are fond of recording sports content or images of nature it may be desirable to have the possibility of recording images at very high speed (Full HD up to 120 FPS).
All the technologies I have just mentioned, and some others, are already available in models like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this section, which shows that the video recording capacity of some current cameras is remarkable. And it will continue to develop in the future because this is one of the subjects in which some manufacturers are putting “all the meat in the spit”. And keep it that way.