Change of focal length for photography: is the digital SLR dead?

When it comes to camera technology, future trends have traditionally been driven by the “smarter, faster, lighter” doctrine. But as the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) comes of age, where will camera designers take us next?

Ask any professional photographer what they want from their camera of the future and you can guarantee the answer will be some variation on the theme of higher resolution and larger file sizes. In other words, more pixels on the camera sensor. This is not a new request: since the Kodak Microelectronics Technology division developed a 1.3 megapixel charge-coupled image sensor in 1986 and integrated it into a Canon F- 1 standard, photographers are asking for more from their digital mono-sensor. reflex cameras (DSLR). The equation has always been “bigger sensors plus more pixels equals better quality”.

And they got it. Today, at the professional high end of the spectrum, Hasselblad H system cameras (which will set you back tens of thousands of pounds) offer 400MP file output. Meanwhile, in the consumer space, horizon analyzers are already predicting that the next version of Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro, through a process known as “pixel binning”, will effectively serve up 48MB. from what is essentially a free dash cam. If the rumors are true, the iPhone 14 Pro will deliver more pixels than Nikon’s D850 prosumer DSLR, which currently retails for around £2,500. As one analyst points out, the benefits to the end user are that “pixel binning is a way for manufacturers to deliver tons of megapixels without hurting low-light performance.” But that’s not the point. The larger problem is that such devices could cause huge disruption in the market, with Apple sending a strong signal that the days of the trusty DSLR workhorse slung around our necks might be over.

It was the late American futurist Alvin Toffler who said that one of the goals of technological evolution is to produce smarter, cheaper and lighter gadgets. And while we may get into “information overload” (Toffler’s term) about what chip developments will mean for image resolution and pixel count, Moore’s Law means designers today will always produce “better” cameras tomorrow. Advances in smartphone camera specs mean that the everyday user will see a narrowing of the quality differentiation between photos taken on their handheld device and the bulky DSLR that costs far more.

Photo credit: Canon

“Is the DSLR dead?” asks Jason Parnell-Brookes on his Fstoppers blog. Perhaps reports of its demise are exaggerated, he says, as Canon has announced that it will continue to manufacture DSLRs as long as there is a market for them. But the real threat to the DSLR is not the smartphone, but “mirrorless” cameras that can compete on image quality (which smartphones struggle to do), while being cheaper and lighter (if not much smarter).

Where the mirrorless cameras really score is in the name. By removing the bulky mirror component, mirrorless cameras can provide faster shooting speed (up to 30 frames per second), while their disadvantages are negligible. In the past, smaller sensors (APS-C) and slow electronic sights hampered mirrorless takeover. But as a recent TechRadar comparison of the genres points out, more powerful chips now mean that “the tables are somewhat reversed. The latest and greatest technology is now found in mirrorless cameras. If you’re a first-time user, you might be more likely to opt for a cheaper DSLR, given that it’s still the most affordable way to get a camera with a built-in viewfinder.

According to professional photographer Thomas Kettner, where we are now is a phase of development where “new things are happening in small steps. There is still development in terms of speed, quality and performance. But he thinks this trio of factors – which sounds a lot like Toffler’s axiom about the purpose of technology – won’t do much in terms of deviations from the trajectory. In a decade, “technologically, it won’t be very different from today. Maybe the cameras will get smaller, even faster. Perhaps there will be no more photos: only films” among which the photographer of tomorrow “will choose a frame and shoot a single fraction of a second for a still image”.

But not everyone agrees with Kettner, mainly because the chips inside the cameras are only part of the story. And yet, apart from the digital revolution, advances in photography have more to do with geological time than with the white heat of technology.

One fundamental aspect of camera technology that we tend to assume doesn’t change is the lens, despite the obvious advancements introduced by autofocus (introduced in 1978 with the Polaroid SX-70 SONAR OneStep). The transparent material has staunchly remained either glass or acrylic, with commentators pointing out that “the majority of glasses today are based on the same physical principles, and have the same basic limitations, as the first prototypes invented in the 16and century”, when they were used in telescopes. This comes from a research paper published by Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, detailing a new technology for making “artificial materials called ‘metasurfaces’, which consist of a multitude of interacting nanoparticles that together can control the light”. The authors believe that if metasurfaces take off, camera lenses could become “thousands of times thinner and much less resource-intensive to manufacture.”

But if the lenses aren’t going to change anytime soon, there’s plenty of speculation about what might. One such advancement could be the disappearance of the trigger. This technology can be said to be dead with mechanical cameras because the term refers to the analog mechanism that was “cocked” by one lever and “released” by another, in order to expose the film. On digital cameras, it’s now simply a digital switch, although that too could be a thing of the past, with indications that designers are working on voice-activated image capture or even button operation. eye movements.

Lifewire’s Kyle Shurman thinks this technology could be usefully incorporated into cameras where “photographers could wink or use a voice command to tell the camera to record an image”, although the benefits in this context are not clear. Stronger potential lies in hands-free image capture on smartphones or smart glasses. It might not be as far-fetched as it sounds, with reports that Sony has patented a contact lens “that comes with a built-in miniature camera module and all of its components, such as a sensor. image, a lens, a processor, a storage and even a wireless module to transfer images to a smartphone or other connected device”.

Something that could come sooner to our cameras is the replacement of the shutter button with a touchpad, currently under development by Canon. While traditional shutter buttons have limited function, Canon’s replacement is set to do more than adjust focus and take photos. Michael Zhang of PetaPixel says, “The touchpad could have built-in sensors that can detect if a photographer is performing a tap or swipe action and could be used to do different things depending on what you’re currently doing with the device. Photo.

This opens up functionality where complex adjustments such as spot metering and exposure compensation can be made without the photographer leaving the viewfinder. As Zhang puts it, there is no guarantee that this development “will ever see the light of day. But it’s interesting to know that the brains at Canon are reinventing every aspect of camera design: even the tried and true shutter button. »

Even though the world of camera design is conservative, where changes to the function of a button are considered remarkable, the market is not immune to megatrends in technology.

When it comes to connectivity, the current piecemeal nature of how cameras communicate will eventually mimic the smartphone. It will not be necessary to attach it to a laptop to download images. Files will be transmitted over communication networks, allowing people in multiple locations to see what you are filming in real time. On-board AI will switch from focus and exposure settings to choosing your best shots, while immersive photography will mean there will be a convergence between 360-degree, virtual reality and computational photography . As the wheel of innovation comes full circle, one of Victoria’s earliest imaging technologies – 3D or stereoscopic photography – will finally find application as it makes its way into the digital orbit of the smartphone.

As media technology analyst IBC365 observes, the direction in which everyday consumer cameras are heading can be described in five words. When it comes to sensor size, bigger is better. Paradoxically, these sensors will find their way into cameras that are smaller in physical size and price. They will also be faster in terms of connectivity, while producing higher quality images through the use of smarter controls.

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