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A Wish List for Future Digital SLR Cameras – One Year Later

by E.J. Peiker | October 1, 2004

It’s hard to believe that just over a year has passed since the inception of NatureScapes.Net and the publication of my original article: A Wish List for Future Digital SLR Cameras. A lot has transpired during that year in the technology front and many of the ideas presented in my article have since been incorporated into the latest generation of digital cameras, with more innovations announced. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of vaporware as well—products or innovations that have been announced but are late to reach market. I will evaluate the last year’s development and present some new ideas for future digital cameras. As in last year’s article, this article will be Canon-centric but include ideas from all manufacturers of DSLR’s.

Viewfinder

There hasn’t been much development in the viewfinder display in the last year. Canon shooters are still waiting for vital information to be displayed here such as metering mode and flash confirmation. This is something that Nikon photographers have had since the inception of electronic displays in the viewfinder. In the future, probably several years out, I would like to see manufacturers place an image evaluation chip in the light path to the pentaprism that evaluates the exposure and generates a histogram of the image. This histogram would then optionally be projected over the image in the viewfinder, thereby eliminating the need for traditional light meters since the histogram could be adjusted real time via aperture, shutter speed, or ISO. The results then could be seen on the projected histogram at eye point. This would eliminate all exposure guesswork and the need for test shots.

A major complaint regarding previous professional DSLR’s from Canon was that the viewfinder data displays would blank out when any button is pushed, making it impossible to accurately adjust things like ISO, metering mode or flash compensation without removing one’s head from the viewfinder. This is most annoying when doing flash exposure compensation using the +/- button on the camera. The EOS 1D Mark II has eliminated the annoyance for flash compensation by keeping the flash exposure scale on when the button is pushed, but the viewfinder still blanks out for all other operations. Interestingly enough, the consumer oriented EOS 10D and 300D do not have this limitation.

Imaging Sensor

Last year I stated that 2400×3600 pixels or 8.6 megapixels would be an ideal sensor pixel density for wildlife photography. While the Canon EOS 1D Mark II comes close to this at 8.3 megapixels, the implementation is less than ideal due to the application of an overly strong anti-aliasing filter that has a tendency to muddle fine detail in brighter parts of the scene. The imaging sensor on the Kodak Professional DCS Pro SLR/n and SLR/c does not use an anti-aliasing filter at all and the images taken with it, even if cropped from its native 13.5 megapixels to a similar 8.3 megapixels, are vastly superior in sharpness and fine detail. The downside is that noise at ISO 400 and above becomes objectionable. The Canon sensor, on the other hand, has better noise characteristics at ISO 1200 than Kodak’s does at 400. At ISO 160, the Kodak’s native ISO, digital noise is similar to ISO 200 on the 1D Mark II. From the perspective of raw pixel count, we now have a close to ideal sensor but we don’t have the fine detail that we need. I hope Nikon is listening as the Nikon 6 megapixel cameras such as the D100, D70, and D1x offer superior image detail from significantly fewer pixels. An 8.5 megapixel Nikon might provide nature photographers the ideal solution.

One year ago Fuji announced an imaging sensor that uses two sensor elements per pixel site. The advantage of this is that one can be tuned to bright light and the other to low light. The data can then be processed into a dynamic range nearly double that of conventional single element per pixel sensors. Fuji is now shipping this technology in a point-and-shoot digicam and announced its use in the Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro DSLR many months ago, but it is not yet available at this point. I still have very high hopes for this technology as we could soon have digital sensors that much more closely approximate the dynamic range of the human eye. This eliminates the need, in many cases, for graduated neutral density filters or taking multiple shots at different exposure values so that they can be combined later to accurately render what the human eye was able to see.

Konica Minolta has announced a Maxxum 7based DSLR that incorporates an anti-shake imaging sensor in the body. This would in theory make the entire camera “Image Stabilized,” thus avoiding the need for special IS or VR lenses. The sample unit that Konica Minolta has shown allows the sensor to move as much as one full centimeter to counteract vibration. While this sounds fantastic, even a DSLR with a 1.5x field of view multiplier would move the sensor outside of the current image circle of standard 35mm lenses at the full 1-centimeter deflection. Full-frame sensors are completely out of the question without a complete redesign of all lenses. To use the full range of stabilization that this mechanism provides, existing lenses would have to be replaced with larger image circle lenses or the movement of the mechanism must be curtailed. For the production model of this camera, Konica Minolta will limit the amount of sensor travel to avoid this issue.

Automatic Digital Sensor Cleaning

One innovation I was hoping for in last year’s article has reached the market—automatic digital sensor cleaning. Olympus has incorporated an ultrasonic shake mechanism into its sensor that cleans the sensor every time the camera is turned on. I would like to see all DSLR manufacturers come up with a system to keep the sensors clean.

Rear Panel LCD

We have a long way to go in rear panel LCD’s. The rear displays are still smaller and have a lower resolution than is desirable. The most recent crop of DSLR cameras has brighter and more vivid colors in the display making previewing easier, but the histograms still lack the information photographers need. With the exception of the D2H histogram, which is large and easy to read, histograms are typically small, difficult to read and lacking in resolution. I do not understand why manufacturers continue to short change this vital display, as the histogram is the single most important piece of information displayed on the camera and skimping on a few lines of firmware code to properly display it is inexcusable.

Metering

There has been no real innovation in metering in the last year. Nikon’s RGB meter from the F5 film camera is still the best out there and it yet hasn’t been implemented in a way that makes DSLR exposure control as good as it is on the F5. If the idea about projecting a histogram to the eye were to be incorporated, no new metering technology would be needed and DSLR cameras could be simplified.

Autofocus

It was disappointing that the EOS 1D Mark II did not increase the number of cross type autofocus sensors. These AF sensors are much faster, more accurate, and work in much lower light. This camera did, however, split the autofocus functions across two microprocessors making autofocus faster and more accurate, and the difference while using it is noticeable. Tracking moving subjects, even when there is background texture, is greatly improved. It could be improved further, but the state of the art is pretty good.

CompactFlash

In last year’s article, I wrote about a desire to have two CompactFlash card slots to allow for more storage or backup. Canon has given us two slots in the EOS 1D Mark II but due to space constraints, gave us one CompactFlash slot and one Secure Digital slot. This is impractical and expensive since you have to buy new, dual-digital media to use the feature. I would not have minded if the camera were a few millimeters wider to accommodate two CompactFlash cards. CompactFlash has become so fast in the latest generation, and camera buffers in the high end professional models have become so large, that filling the buffer and having to wait for the camera to be ready is largely a thing of the past. These new technologies will undoubtedly trickle down into the consumer space in the next two years. Manufacturers have started using double data rate RAM (DDR) and multiple pathways to offload the sensor more quickly and take advantage of the new super fast flash cards.

User Interface

Every DSLR camera is still a hodgepodge of menus that makes it difficult to switch between brands or sometimes even between cameras of the same brand. The latest menu structure in the 1D Mark II with only two levels and multiple logically arranged pages is the best so far, but simplification in this space is still needed. I find it ludicrous that we have both “Custom Functions” that can be programmed on the camera and “Personal Functions” that have to be enabled via the camera tethered to a computer. This is illogical and impractical; all functions should be accessible on the camera itself. Then there is the mirror “lock-up” function that has to be accessed via a custom function?

The Nikon D2H menu is deeply nested and not intuitive enough to use for a new user and often requires a manual to find functions that should be easily accessible.

Many cameras include an audio recording feature that perhaps could be used in the future to select complex functions verbally.

The multi-button push structure is still prevalent on professional bodies. Canon’s consumer division has done a much better job in this respect on the 10D and 300D. It is often difficult to change a vital function of the camera without removing the eye from the viewfinder, which is inexcusable in pro level cameras that have to be ready to go 100% of the time.

We have a long way to go!

Other Considerations

Areas that have seen some major improvements in the last year are camera start-up time and shutter lag. The latest pro models from Nikon and Canon start up almost instantaneously, and shutter lag is better than what is available in the latest film cameras. This is a great advance for action shooters; very little improvement in this area is needed in the future.

Battery life concerns have been addressed, too, with the latest breed getting 1,000 frames or more per battery charge. All of the new camera models break through the 2-gigabyte barrier by using the FAT 32 file system.

Canon shooters moving from the 1D to the 1D Mark II have taken a step back in flash sync speed which is 1/250 in the new camera compared to 1/500 in its predecessor. Faster flash sync speeds continue to be desirable, even if that means going back to CCD technology from CMOS.

We need low noise without compromising image detail. The design choices that Canon has made in recent times to give smooth ISO 800 and above images comes at a price: a softening of fine detail that nature photographers need.

The Ideal Nature DSLR Specifications

In addition to today’s state-of-the-art features, the following additions would make the DSLR nearly perfect:

  • 8.6-megapixel sensor for a wildlife camera with a 1.5x field-of-view multiplier
  • 16-megapixel sensor for a landscape camera with no multiplier
  • 8 to 10 true stops of dynamic range (like the Fuji sensor)
  • 8 frames per second
  • Real-time histogram projected into the pentaprism
  • 1/500 or faster flash sync
  • Viewfinder with all relevant shooting data – a programmable viewfinder display would be desirable. No viewfinder data blackout when pushing camera buttons
  • User-definable anti-aliasing filter implemented in software
  • Single- or dual-level menus. Possibly voice-activation of camera features
  • 802.11g high-speed wireless data transfer capability
  • All custom functions available on the camera without a need to tether it to a computer
  • Dual CF card slots with 1-gigabyte high-speed RAM buffer
  • Automatic sensor cleaning
About the Author

E.J. was born in 1960 in Augsburg, Germany and moved to Ohio in 1969. He attended Purdue University and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and completed graduate studies in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Physics. After working for the Intel Corporation for 27 years, he is now retired from the electronics industry and is a professional freelance photographer. E.J. and has formally studied photography at the University of New Mexico and completed courses from The Rocky Mountain School of Photography. E.J. has two sons, and has lived in Chandler, Arizona since 1994. A photographic specialty is artistic images of ducks and E.J. has published the book Ducks of North America - The Photographer's Guide. E.J. is also prolific in landscape photography, his first photographic love. E.J.'s photographs have been published worldwide in books, advertising, magazines, billboards, murals and more. Some of his publishers and clients include The National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, The United States National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Navy, State Parks Arizona, Barrons, and Dorling Kindersley. New Zealand Post honored E.J. by making one of his penguin images the primary image for their 2014 Commemorative Antarctica Ross Dependency Stamp set. He has also been named one of the top 100 Wildlife Photographers in the world by Eastern Europe's Digital Photographer Magazine. Visit his website at: www.ejphoto.com.

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