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The great pixel race - Duncan Evans investigates the issue of ever-increasing pixel counts in compact cameras and asks the question, when is the great pixel race going to end.
A brace of new compacts have just been launched, packing an astonishing 12Mp resolution into small bodies, but at what point can the line be drawn, where, in the compact market, manufacturers say, enough is enough? The problems with stuffing ever more pixels into cameras that don't increase in size are numerous. For a start the mechanics of doing so mean that the photosites themselves have to be smaller to fit more in and this means that there is less light hitting each one. Thus the amplification of the signal needs to be increased, introducing random digital noise at earlier ISO ratings. That's just one problem, the camera then needs more power which creates heat and that leads to more noise, and the battery will either run out quicker, or there has to be a higher capacity version. Then there's the issue of file sizes. Although JPEGs are pretty efficient, increasing the image resolution creates larger file sizes, which has effects on maximum burst rates, internal buffer sizes and speed of saving to memory cards.
The question then, is at what point is the line drawn and it be said that the resolution is high enough and that further technological advances will be made in other areas, like processing, proper digital filters, connectivity and tonal range. So, we put the following question to a range of manufacturers, starting with Casio as they have just launched a 12Mp compact. The answers we got confirmed that the great pixel race is far from over so you can expect to see higher resolution compact cameras, at least in the short-medium term.
Q. Given the issues of noise and quality, do you foresee a limit on the megapixel count in your cameras, or in the industry in general, at which point it isn't worth using bigger ones. Some commentators would say that an A4 300dpi image requires an 8Mp resolution, and that going beyond that is fruitless in a compact. What would be the Casio thinking, particularly as you've just launched this 12Mp model?
A Casio spokesperson: The recent explosion in digital imaging has not only led to most homes now owning a digital camera, but also becoming more involved in image manipulation and home printing. The demand for more megapixels comes from users demanding more input data to edit, enlarge and print. As compact cameras allow users to take and produce images from different situations to DSLRs, there will always be a demand for high quality imaging from compacts. Of course, as the megapixel count increases, the associated issues of noise and quality need to be addressed in order to produce acceptable results for the intended consumers.
We asked the same question to Panasonic, who also have a 12Mp compact on the way.
Mark Robinson, Product Manager-Lumix, Panasonic UK: While other companies were increasing the number of pixels to create high-image-quality products, Panasonic was developing Lumix cameras based on the concept that image quality is determined by the lens, the imaging device and the engine. For this reason, we did not agree fully with the thought that "increased pixels always means better picture quality." Instead, Panasonic incorporated a variety of innovative technologies into Lumix, including hand-shake compensation.
Since the use of digital still cameras has become more widespread, customer needs have diversified. Preserving important or memorable photos in high resolution is one of the reasons for purchasing a digital still camera. The new DMC-FX100 features a highly attractive design and is equipped with the new 1/1.72in. CCD and 28mm wide-angle 3.6x zoom Leica DC lens for shooting with a full 12.2Mp resolution.
Image quality is not determined only by the number of pixels. Total performance, including that of the engine, is important for achieving high image quality. CCDs with an increased number of pixels are one size larger, thus inevitably making the lens and camera body larger. Therefore, we offered 10Mp resolution only in a limited range of products until we developed parts that would allow us to create models that meet our product concepts and user needs.
Because our 10Mp products, such as the LX2 and FZ50, were well received by the market and the demand trend showed that a growing number of customers would purchase new products to replace their existing cameras or as second cameras, we have developed the new FX100 as the ultimate in compact cameras, in response to consumer needs.
When the number of pixels is increased, the lens performance becomes more critical for achieving high resolution, and even a tiny amount of hand-shake can significantly decrease resolution.
Panasonic's new DMC-FX100 - the world's first 12.2Mp resolution digital camera with 28mm wide-angle lens - uses the combination of Leica DC lens and Venus Engine III to achieve high image quality. In addition, the Optical Image Stabiliser minimises blur due to hand-shake while the Intelligent ISO Control suppresses blur due to subject motion, thus achieving high image quality.
With regards to further increases in resolution, although the direction for product evolution will depend on future technological advances, we will basically listen to customer opinions to determine our future course.
Canon offered their thoughts on the great pixel race.
Vic Solomon, Product Intelligence Consultant, Canon: Since the very first digital compact camera hit the market both consumers and product reviewers alike have wanted larger and larger resolutions, the problem with producing these high pixel count models is that of noise and being able to process the image data in such a way that the end result is a high quality image.
Canon knew there could be difficulties in producing these high megapixel cameras and took steps to develop an imaging processor that could deal with very large amounts of data running complex processes at lightning fast speeds, this chip is called DIGIC, Canon now implements the third generation DIGIC processor, (DIGIC III), in some of the current range. DIGIC III is able to process the data and produce low noise images that are of a very high quality.
Digital compact cameras will undoubtedly have larger pixel counts in the future, but Canon will only develop these sensors when the lenses and image processors can cope with the extra resolution, consumers will always want the latest, biggest and fastest in whatever product they buy, so why should cameras be any different.
By increasing the pixel count photographers would be given not only larger files, but the chance to crop their images and retain enough quality to make their prints.
The next reply was from Fujifilm, who's sensors currently stand at 6Mp, but extrapolate more data because of extra diodes and the sensor arrangement.
Theo Georghiades, Product Manager, Photo, Fujifilm UK: The UK digital camera market is very much led by megapixel count, and a higher number of photosites can be useful, especially when printing pages that are over A4 in size. However, too many pixels on a sensor can be more damaging than useful if the rest of the technology in the camera is not up to the task. The challenge, and responsibility, manufacturers have is to develop technology in support of high-pixel sensors so that the sensor remains effective in low light and the processor can cope with the file sizes produced. In its most recent flagship compact digital camera, the FinePix F31fd, Fujifilm chose to cap the pixel count at 6 million. We concentrated instead on enhancing the FinePix combination of Super CCD and Real Photo Processor to achieve a camera capable of ISO 3200 at full resolution and with significantly less noise than some competing products at 1600.
Finally we have the thoughts from Olympus.
Mark Thackara, General Manager, Marketing, Imaging, Olympus UK: This is a politically entertaining subject. In mass retail pixels are still king. This may have something to do with the limited opportunity to show features other than pixels/LCD size and zoom at point of sale and partly to do with the non expert general population being given this message over the last few years and so continue to believe that to be the case.
The process of promoting other features is underway - whether it be the "life proof" concept of our tough cameras or the low light message from Fuji. It will take time to reverse the juggernaut - a little bit like RMS watts and hi fi's many years ago! In the meantime competition will naturally drive development in all directions including more pixels.
As tests highlight the benefits of other features and compare the performance of the various models I have no doubt that the increase in resolution will tail off, dealers and consumers will balance the various other attributes of cameras.
Fujifilm insist that they are sticking to the 6Mp SuperCCD for now, but as that is getting on a bit in camera terms, it surely won't be long before there is a new, higher resolution, version. As far as everyone else is concerned, it's full speed ahead with the new raft of 12Mp cameras which look likely to be simply the next round in the great pixel race, and that higher resolutions will be on the way, as long as the lens technology can keep up. One side effect from this is something Vic Solomon commented on, that increased pixel resolution will in effect make digital zoom - ie the cropping type, not the one that then interpolates the image back up again - more viable, and give people the ability to zoom in by 50% on the computer, yet still have a high enough resolution picture to print at A4.