The Future of Digital Photography

Sony has released the NEX-3 and NEX-5 series cameras which represent Sony’s first DSLR-quality offerings with decent low-light performance (not-quite-up-there with the Nikon D300/D90/D5000 but close). The sad thing is these cameras are getting panned because, basically, they’re too small (or rather, their bodies are too small). Sony made them so small that the camera body was smaller than the lens barrel (which is plainly ridiculous) which in turn led to a lack of real estate for hard controls, which in turn led to menu-driven controls, which led to lousy ergonomics.

I wonder if Sony can find the guy who designed the PSX controller and have him sort out their camera division. Well, it doesn’t matter because this particular product category is stupid.

The basic problem for me with this entire category is that if you can’t stick it in your pocket, then why bother? The only way any of these cameras is “pocketable” is with a pancake lens, which means you’re stuck at 35-40mm equivalent. You can get a superb high-end fast zoom lens camera (such as the Panasonic LX-3 or the Canon G-11) for far less money and that sucker might actually fit in a pocket. If you’re going to carry around a bunch of lenses why not simply get a cheap DSLR? It seems to me that the “non-reflex interchangeable lens small digital” category might make sense if they picked a sensor size based on being able to mount a versatile lens and remain pocketable (which might mean a considerably smaller than 4/3 sensor).

In the long run, 35mm film dominated because it was the largest film you could put in the smallest camera that was still reasonably pleasant to use. It follows that if you don’t need a film winding mechanism with two spools that in the end full-frame 35mm sensors or something slightly larger will eventually “win” the format race. Anything “slightly” smaller simply gets you lousy ergonomics (if you do it to shrink the camera) or poorer image quality (since smaller sensors equal inferior image quality).

Leica has figured this out, but their camera costs about as much as a pretty nice car. (And just in case you think that what Leica does is irrelevant to the overall camera market, who do you think popularized the 35mm standard?)

So it seems to me that there are going to be two successful mass market formats in the long run:

  • Serious cameras will be dominated by full-frame 35mm (or slightly larger) sensors with interchangeable lenses.
  • Mainstream cameras will be dominated by fixed lens cameras (including cell phones) with the best sensors that can be made for pretty much nothing (underwater, pro-pocket, etc.). It’s worth noting that the way the fab business works, eventually full-frame 35mm sensors will cost just about nothing, so eventually expect to see some seriously awesome IQ even in this segment (just as you eventually got ridiculously good, dirt cheap 35mm cameras). Someone like Olympus might succeed with an interchangeable lens camera with a smaller-than-35mm sensor, but it needs to get you a useful pocketable camera, not a pocket-size body with a gigantic lens. That’s just stupid.

Personally, I’m waiting for Nikon’s D700 replacement.