The DSLR Decade


Yes, it's been another ten years. Where are we?

Original: 9/5/2009

You may not have realized it, but we've just passed through the second decade of the DSLR. The first decade was filled with very high priced low volume products targeted at photojournalist and dominated by Kodak. The second decade kicked off with the "affordable" and availabl- to-anyone Nikon D1 in the summer of 1999. Just for illustration purposes, let's put together a table of comparisons to see how far we've come.

  D1 D3x
sensor Sony CCD
DX (15.5 x 23.7mm)
2000 x 1312 pixel
ISO 200 to 1600
Nikon CMOS
FX (24 x 35.9mm)
6048 x 4032
ISO 100 to 6400
focus CAM 1300 (5 segment, 3 crosshatched)
Single Area, Dynamic Area, Closest Subject
CAM 3500 (51 segment, 15 crosshatched)
Single Point, Dynamic Area, Group, 3D
processing Dedicated (unnamed) ASIC
6 WB presets plus custom
8 bit internal processing
Image Optimization settings
NTSC Color Space (undefined)

EXPEED ASIC
12 WB presets, override, plus custom
16-bit internal processing
Picture Control settings
sRGB and AdobeRGB Color Space (defined)

metering 3D matrix, center weighted, spot 3D Matrix II, center weighted, spot
frame rate 4.5 fps, 21 image buffer (JPEG) 5 fps, 130 image buffer (JPEG)
viewfinder 86% coverage, .8x magnification 100%, .7x magnification
LCD 2" 130k dot 3" 920k dot
battery EN-4 NiMH battery EN-EL4a lithium ion battery
weight 42.3 ounces 44.4 ounces
other very modal interface (shoot or play only), F5 style Custom Settings (unorganized, cryptic), D-TTL Live View, multiple card slots, organized Custom Settings and menus, i-TTL
price US$6396 (inflation adjusted) US$7999


There's no arguing that a D3x (or D3) is a better camera than the D1 was. The D1 had a lot of small shooting idiosyncracies and an overall lack of refinement that the D3 series no longer shows. Some of the differences are simply generational improvements (three in total) of basic things like the ASIC, metering, focus, and menu systems. It should also be clear that Nikon doesn't think some things are broke. The camera is basically the same size, uses a similar style (though refined) battery, still uses the same button-and-dial user interface pioneered with the N8008, uses the same lens mount with no changes, and so on. If you've been in a Rip Van Wrinkle-like coma for the past 25 years, picking up, say, a D700 isn't going to be a lot different during the shooting phase than the N90s you were using before your sleep. Yes, the digital stuff and menu system is a giant, complex new thing you'll have to master, but setting the basic camera functions is still the same.

What is different from the pure photography side is larger image size and better image quality, plus a clearly better focus system. This brings up two questions: (1) are those changes as much as we could have expected in 10 years (i.e. could Nikon have done better), and (2) is that the level of change we should expect in the coming 10 years?

My answers are yes to #1, no to #2. The second DSLR decade will be looked back on as the "golden" decade, the one in which lots of visible progress was made in the key aspect of creating the image. Kodak's dominance of the first decade took us from curiousity cameras to functional-though-overly-huge 6mp hybrid cameras (digital bolted onto the film). Nikon and Canon's dominance of the second decade brought us refinement of the camera back to those achieved in the film years plus 20mp+ sensors with image quality that produces Medium Format film type images.

Yet, have we moved as far as we think? I look at some of my images shot with the 2.7mp D1 and D1h and 4mp D2h and see some very impressive pixels. I had to work harder to achieve good results with those cameras--any mistake and you compromised how large you could print images from those cameras. But the same is true of my D3x, only it's different mistakes that I have to worry about now (e.g. diffraction and camera movement). I'm not suggesting that I won't take the improvements Nikon has made along the way--a 920k dot 3" LCD is certainly much better than a 130k dot 2" LCD for example--but since I rarely print large and rarely use high ISO values and have always tried to optimize my shooting for the tool in my hand, I get the feeling from looking at 10 years of Nikon digital images that what I achieve today is a smaller step than 2.7mp to 24mp suggests. Indeed, I often drop back to my 10mp and 12mp Nikons for certain work. On my most recent trip to Africa, I took a D90, D300, and IR converted D200. The images that I've shot during the past decade that have been the best received have all been from 10mp cameras (mostly my D200). I certainly don't poo-poo sensor improvements and pixel count increases, but interestingly I don't pick up the 24mp camera as much as I do my 12mp cameras. And because I tend to shoot in a narrow ISO range to maximize dynamic range (you do realize that higher ISO values compromise dynamic range, even on the D3, don't you?), just as I did with film, I haven't noticed any big differences between the 10mp and 12mp cameras, which explains why I'm still happy picking up a D40x or D200 (but not a D80--Nikon made too many errors in execution with that camera, most noticeably crippling matrix metering).

So the question becomes what happens in the next decade? If I'm happy with the 12mp cameras today, what would motivate me to buy a new generation of professional gear? Moreover, there are lot of folk out there writing that diffraction will stop the pixel increase train, that we're close to hitting physical limits, and that the long image quality improvement stream is coming to an end.

Nonsense. While diffraction certainly robs you of some resolution gain through pixel count increases, the key word in that phrase is "some." If my calculations are correct, an FX Bayer sensor can get to about the mid-40mp range before the diffraction impacts totally flatten the resolution gain curve. Moreover, we're still not close to any physical limit in the sensor I'm aware of. Even light capturing areas can be increased as a percentage of the overall pixel area (backlighting comes to mind). And frankly, the camera companies are still behind where the NSA is in image quality production from digital sources (HDR, pano stitching, and many other things we now take for granted in software all came from NSA, NRO, and other government projects [Someone questioned my comment about NSA, as NSA does sound eavesdropping only. Some of our noise reduction techniques come out of digital audio filtering research.]). No, image quality can be improved significantly still.

The question is who needs more quality. Cell phones are rapidly taking over the duty of low-end compact cameras. The current DSLRs are good enough for anything you'd care to print at home (i.e. desktop inkjet printers). So who needs more?

That's a good question, and one the Japanese makers don't seem willing to answer. Nikon and Fujifilm proved (with the D3 and F30 respectively) that low light capabilities were definitely appreciated over many other gains (pixel count, for instance), and we're still seeing the camera makers take small stabs at that (the Canon G11, for instance). But here's the thing: HD Television is 1920 x 1080 pixels max (go back and look at the D1 specs ;~). If LCD displays are going to take the place of prints (and I think they will), how many pixels do you need? Try it today at home. Create a really good 1920x1080 image in the right format and display it on the big flat screen TV in your living room. Looks darned good, doesn't it? Indeed, you've been seeing such images for awhile now in commercial uses. So how big a pixel count do you really need for a 48" LCD "print" that hangs on your wall? (By the way, putting three or four LCD print frames on your walls is likely to be less expensive than buying a printer that creates images that big ;~).

That said, I'm not guessing that the camera makers are going to do anything differently this coming decade than they did the last: (a) refine the body controls; (b) improve focus and metering systems; (c) add kitchen sink features; and (d) increase megapixel counts and boost image quality.

Nikon has three generations of new pro cameras scheduled for the next decade (2011, 2015, and 2019). So where do I think we'll be in 2019? Let me take a whack:

  D3x D6
sensor Nikon CMOS
Bayer
FX (24 x 35.9mm)
6048 x 4032
ISO 100 to 6400
Nikon CMOS enhanced
Three-layer (non-Bayer)
FX (24 x 36mm)
4828 x 2888 pixel
ISO 100 to 12800
focus CAM 3500 (51 segment, 15 crosshatched)
Single Point, Dynamic Area, Group, 3D
Integrated phase detection in sensor
Single Point, Dynamic Area, Group, 3D
processing

EXPEED ASIC
12 WB presets, override, plus custom
16-bit internal processing
Picture Control settings
sRGB and AdobeRGB Color Space

EXPEED III ASIC
6 WB presets plus custom
48 bit internal processing (3 color x 16)
Picture Control II settings
sRGB, AdobeRGB, NikonRGB Color Space
metering 3D Matrix II, center weighted, spot 3D matrix III, any weighted, any spot
frame rate 5 fps, 130 image buffer (JPEG) 8 fps, near infinite image buffer (JPEG)
viewfinder 100%, .7x magnification 100% coverage electronic viewfinder
LCD 3" 920k dot 4" 1300k dot
battery EN-EL4a lithium ion battery EN-EL4b lithium ion battery
weight 44.4 ounces 40+ ounces
other Live View, multiple card slots, organized Custom Settings and menus, i-TTL All the D3x things, plus video, no mirror system (allows use of old fisheye!), quasi-modular body
price >US$9999 inflation adjusted US$9999

Surprised? Note that a ~14mp three-layer design gets nicely around the diffraction barriers and approach the resolution levels we're now seeing but with better edge acuity. That's one of the reasons why I don't think that we'll see the camera makers stop the constant sensor improvement stream.

But here's the problem and the reason why I said that the second decade was the golden decade for DSLRs, not the upcoming third decade: most everyone who wants or needs a DSLR has one, and it's remarkably competent. Thus, each subsequent generation of new cameras at the high end in the next decade is going to have fewer takers. That has a lot of implications, including higher prices. So enjoy your current camera.


 

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