It’s plain that the camera industry has seen a significant degree of disruption in the last 5-10 years, almost all of it driven by digital cameras. On the back of this, we’ve seen a huge explosion in pictures on the web (most obviously on sites like Flickr), as well as other interesting changes (such as print-it-yourself kiosks in photo shops and chemists). Amateur photography seems to be going through a resurgence - I have started taking a lot more photographs, as have many of my friends and colleagues. Whether that resurgence will be permanent is unknown, but of course the increase in the convenience of cameras (no more waiting for development, easy digitisation) is not temporary.
However, whilst digital has brought innovation to the back-end - what do you do once the picture is taken? - the front-end is still as much hassle as ever. I own a Canon Powershot S80, a high-end compact camera which aims to provide many of the facilities of an SLR on a compact. Canon have done a good job - it pretty much does this - since a lot of those facilities are only in software anyway, it’s not hard. However, it still doesn’t match up to an SLR in one fundamental way - the picture quality is simply not as good (not as clear, fringing round the edges), mostly a result of a smaller CCD and a smaller, cheaper lens. Accordingly, I plan to buy an SLR at some point in the future once I can get what I want (>12MP for less than £500 - I’m betting on two years).
It’s painfully apparent that cameras themselves haven’t changed much in size or ease-of-usage since digital photography came along. Compact cameras have got slightly smaller than later-generation 35mm ones, partly because CCDs don’t need to be 35mm in size, and partly because many viewfinders have been eliminated in favour of an LCD screen. SLRs, however, are still basically the same size they always were - and I would assert this is mostly because of the large physical size of high-quality lenses (I’m sure high-quality CCDs could be reduced in size with a bit of investment).
The problem, of course, is that there are fundamental physical limitations to do with light that affect the quality of the lens. I’m no physicist, but I suspect from what I remember learning in physics at school that these are likely to be the biggest problem. However, I’m sure that there must be more one can do to shrink SLRs (and presumably their lenses). There is of course a huge pre-existing investment in lens mountings by consumers and professionals (for example, Canon have their EOS system), which is bound to slow down the rate of change and adoption, but I for one would love to see some investment going into shrinking the whole camera. I’d pay a lot for a high-quality SLR that fits in my pocket.
Updated 2007-01-11: Bit of a simple treatment perhaps, but this guide might nevertheless be useful when determining megapixel requirements. Of course it does make a (partly) abritrary choice of 300dpi resolution.