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Consumer digital cameras: more pixels for less money.

New technology and changing marketplace impacts buyers' choices

Here's a capsule forecast for the future of consumer digital cameras: Lower prices for higher megapixel sensors. Looking at less than $500 point-and-shoot digital models, it's clear from mass merchandisers' 2003 holiday ads that a majority of cameras are being sold at prices equivalent to $100 per megapixel or less. For example, most 3-megapixel cameras are street priced at $299.99. (Street prices are reported in this article.)

There are some impressive exceptions coming from outside the photo industry, such as the compact 5-megapixel Gateway DC-T50 digital camera with a 3x optical zoom lens that sells online for less than $300 (after $50 mail-in rebate with free shipping).

The question is whether this is an on-going trend, or a momentary condition reflected by the expected status of the 2004-2005 marketplace.

Looming large in camera manufacturers and photo specialty dealers' planning is the impact of cameraphone sales, which currently are surpassing digital camera sales. Two- and 3-megapixel cameraphones will be available in 2004, and 4- and 5-megapixel cameraphone are expected by 2005.

Some industry analysts predict, as the higher resolution cameraphone models are introduced, they will undercut the popularity of the same resolution digital cameras. There is also the expectation that basic low-end digital cameras will be at least 4- or 5-megapixel models, with the exception of "novelty" cameras.

Analysts also predict a new interest in interchangeable-lens digital SLRs will be sparked by the Four Thirds System, which was launched with much fanfare with the introduction of the high-end 5.5-megapixel Olympus E-1. The Four Thirds System is based on a new lens mount dedicated exclusively to digital SLRs and common 4:3 aspect sensor array. The engineering and designs are available for use by all manufacturers; and it is hoped, with industry-wide support, the system will eliminate the use of proprietary 35mm-format lens mounts on future digital SLR models. A great degree of mix-and-match interchangeability will be possible among different brands of lenses and SLR digital camera bodies.

Although not true SLRs, many of the new digital point-and-shoot cameras view subjects through the lens. The image is electronically delivered to the viewfinder and displayed on a miniature LCD screen. Cameras employing electronic viewfinders (EVF) include the 6.3-megapixel Fujifilm FinePix $700, 4-megapixel Kodak EasyShare DX6490, 5-megapixel Konica Minolta DiMAGE A1, 5-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 5700, and 8-megapixel Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-F828. The battery-operated electronic viewfinders should not be confused with similar-looking optical viewfinders they replace.

Recently introduced point-and-shoot digital camera model designs can be divided into three categories: ultracompact, compact, and "normal-size" cameras. Some ultra-compact models are engineering marvels. For example, the $290 Konica Minolta DiMAGE Xt is an ultra-thin, shirt pocket-size, 3-megapixel model. The 3x (37-111mm f/2.8-3.6) optical zoom lens is positioned lengthwise inside the camera body and employs a prism to direct the image to the sensor. The tiny $290 Pentax Optio 33WR 3-megapixel camera, with an internal 2.8x (37-104mm f/2.8-3.9) zoom lens, is a thin, ultra-compact model designed to be more rugged to better withstand the elements, and is described by Pentax as a "water-resistant" digital camera that can be used in surf and spray. One of the thinnest and smallest cameras is the $350 Casio Exilim EX-S3, a 3.2-megapixel model with a fixed-focus 35mm equivalent lens. Its dimensions are that of a business card, and it has a thickness of less than 0.5 inch.

Among compact models are the $400 Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-P92, a 5-megapixel model with a 3x (38-114mm f/2.8-5.6) zoom lens; $400 Canon Powershot A80, with 4 megapixels and a 3x (38-114mm f/2.8-4.9) optical zoom lens, and the 4-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 4300 for $400, with a 3x (38-114mm f/2.8-4.9) zoom.

Finally, "normal-size" consumer models are about the size of a small 35mm-format film camera. One of the most popular is the $500 Kodak EasyShare DX6480, a 4-megapixel model with an impressive 10x (38-380mm f/2.8-3.7) Schneider Variogon zoom lens. Also among super zoom models is the $400 barrel-shaped DiMAGE Z1, which combines a 38-380mm f/2.8-3.5 zoom lens with a 3-megapixel sensor, and the $449 HP Co. Photosmart 935, a 5.3-megapixel model with 3x (37-111mm f/2.6-9) optical zoom lens.

An ongoing development is the introduction of higher quality optics sporting respected pedigree names, such as a Schneider-Kreuznach Varigon zoom on the Kodak DX-6490, Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar zoom on the Sony DSC-F717, Leica DC Vario-Elmarit zoom on the Panasonic DMC-LC43, and Zoom-Nikkor lenses equipping the stable of Nikon Coolpix models. Another still digital lens trend is the increasing number of models equipped with standard 3x or ultra-long 10x zoom lenses. One unanswered question: When can consumers expect digital camera zoom lenses that produce truly wide-angle views, such as 24mm- and 28mm-equivalent focal lengths?

A popular accessory among digital camera buyers is docking cradles that provide instant downloading of images and compatible printing options. For example, Kodak EasyShare camera buyers have two choices--the basic $70 Kodak EasyShare camera dock, which permits image downloading to the computer or Internet with the push of a single button; and the $200 Kodak EasyShare Printer Dock 6000, which serves as a downloader and snapshot-size printer. Fujifilm offers the PictureCradle for easily downloading images from several FinePix models, and the HP PhotoSmart Digital Dock is compatible with many of the HP PhotoSmart cameras. In most cases, the computer-tethered docks provide one-button operation, automatic recharge of camera batteries, and TV hookups for on screen viewing of images.

Digital camera LCD color monitor screen sizes have been inflating dramatically, from 1.5 inches to 1.8 inches to 2.0 inches. Currently, 2.5-inch screens are in fashion. But size isn't the whole story. The upcoming improvement is organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays from Kodak. OLEDs provide their own illumination and have a lower battery drain compared to LCDs. This means brighter, more vibrant colors and a wide viewing angle--all benefits for daylight viewing of digital camera monitor/viewfinders. The first OLED monitor display was incorporated into the $399 Kodak 3.1-megapixel EasyShare LS633 digital camera.

The number of plug-and-play digital printers is increasing. They operate cabled directly to cameras and do not require the use of a computer. For example, the $179.99 Canon Direct Print CP200 Digital Color Printer, which provides direct printing ability with several Canon digital cameras, including the $450, 5-megapixel PowerShot S50; the $200 Olympus P-10 printer produces 4-by-6-inch borderless prints with any PictBridge-enabled camera; and the Kodak EasyShare 6000 printer dock, mentioned earlier.

Watch for implementation of JPEG 2000 image file format in 2004, which will provide consumers with more flexibility when distributing images over the Internet. Advanced digital photographers have discovered cameras with RAW file format ability have great advantages. A RAW file image can be employed as a "digital negative," accepting advanced image processing later. By retaining a photo in the unprocessed RAW format, it is possible to tweak the exposures and provide finer adjustments in white balance, color values, contrast, and exposure latitude. Although considered an advance function, RAW file format choices are found on many point-and-shoot cameras, including Canon PowerShot models, the high-end Nikon Coolpix 5700 and 5000, Olympus C-5050 Zoom, and Minolta DiMAGE 5 and 7.

More digital models offer a choice of memory media through dual-card camera slots. For example, the Fujifilm FinePix $2 Pro accepts both CompactFlash Type I/II memory cards, as well as SD media; the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-F828 has slots for CompactFlash Type I/II, as well as Sony's own Memory Stick media, and the Olympus C5060 Zoom provides media slots for CompactFlash Type I/II, as well as the new stamp-size xD-Picture memory cards. There, however, is little indication of any standardization of memory media, as new storage formats proliferate. Currently, consumer model digital cameras employ CompactFlash Type I/II (including IBM MicroDrives), SmartMedia, Memory Stick/Memory Stick PRO, Secure Digital/MultiMedia, and xD-Picture cards, plus Mini-CD-R/RWs and floppy disks for image storage.

Readers will have a first-hand opportunity to review all the upcoming innovations and new technologies in the digital camera world at the PMA 2004 Convention and Trade Show, February 12-15, in Las Vegas, Nev.
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Author:DeBat, Alfred
Publication:Digital Imaging Digest
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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