Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What is the World's Best Camera?

Yesterday, Sony announced its DSC-TX200V, a point and shoot model that some are hailing as the greatest thing since sliced bread. About as small a cell phone, the camera can go just about anywhere, no more excuse of “the camera's too big to carry.” Resolution? A class-leading 18Mp, just don't go expecting miracles in low light. AF capabilities? Top-notch for a camera in its class, with Sony claiming AF as fast as 0.13 seconds. A final, top selling point is durability. The camera is waterproof to 16 feet, dust-proof, and freeze-proof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

Unfortunately, Sony screwed up big time by giving the camera a touch screen, which ruins all usability as it is impossible to change settings on the fly without extensive menu diving. Scratch another candidate for best camera in the world.

So, what would be the perfect camera?

Size. Here's something funny: I own a Nikon D700 ($2700 original retail) and an Olympus Stylus 550WP ($150 original retail). Which one do I use more? The Olympus. Why? It' s small enough to go everywhere I go, which means that it can be taking pictures while the big Nikon stays at home. Sure, the D700 absolutely mops the floor with the Olympus when it comes to image quality, but what use is good IQ if the camera is simply too big to lug around? The perfect camera has to be small enough to fit into a pocket.

Image quality. There is no doubt that larger sensors out-perform small ones, especially when the ISOs get up to around 400. As the sensitivities rise, the performance gap only widens all the more. In low-light, a camera with a SLR-sized sensor can produce good images at ISOs up to 3200. Small sensors? No way there. The perfect camera needs a big sensor.

Optics. From a marketers point of view, there is no doubt that people like zoom lenses. Want proof? Just go to any general big box stores that carry SLR lenses. You're guaranteed to find more zooms than primes. Dedicated photo stores, those are different as people going in there appreciate a fast prime. As further proof that people like zooms, after the Mp count, most often the next headlining feature of any P&S camera is its zoom capability. Yes, while fast primes are nice, most people want the flexibility to zoom, hence requiring that the perfect camera have a zoom lens.

AF capabilities. What good is an outstanding sensor/lens combo if the camera can't focus reliably or in demanding conditions? It isn't. Currently, camera makers use two types of AF mechanisms: phase and contrast detection, with phase being far superior in terms of speed and accuracy, especially in low light or with fast-moving subjects. Focus for the perfect camera? A combination of phase and contrast detect is used on all current dSLRs.

Modes: different people like to shoot differently, which means that the perfect camera needs to have all sorts of shooting modes ranging from fully automatic to all manual. The perfect camera needs to have the traditional P, A, S, M for the experts as well as fancy modes like portrait and fireworks for those who just like to aim and shoot.

Construction. To be the best overall imaging machine possible, a camera needs to be built tough, and then some. A metal body is a good start here as metal is simply tougher than plastic, and thus more likely to survive a good knock-around. However, that simply isn't enough. While a sturdy shell is good, it all comes to nothing if the elements can find their way in, which means that the camera must have all its buttons, seams, and compartments sealed with rubber gaskets, thus ensuring dust and waterproofing. The perfect camera will need to function in all environments.

So, does this perfect camera exist? Of course not, this is just a hypothetical exercise in seeing what the perfect camera would probably look like. So far, the closest thing is the Canon G1X, which is small in size, big on sensor, and flexible with optics and modes. Unfortunately, it uses pure contrast detect AF and has no weather sealing, making it vulnerable to nature.

Still, as technology evolves and new models come to market, who knows, the perfect camera may, just one day, hit store shelves near you.

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