The Time is Ripe for Innovation in Lenses

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.


[...] it makes everything easier and cheaper. (Maybe one day I’ll invest in a 35mm digital SLR but I still want something smaller). Even my new phone has a camera that’s worth a second [...]
I have a Panasonic FZ-7, and with the Nikon TC-E17ED teleconverter I feel that it's near the optimum size, length and weight (1kg) to hold and manipulate most comfortably. The body is about 1/3 smaller than a DSLR in height and width, and featherweight. I was absolutely shocked the first time I saw how huge and clunky a typical DSLR is. With a decent telephoto lens of a focal length matching my FZ-7 would be too heavy to carry around with a DSLR. I don't know why people would want such an unweildy camera. Hopefully improved sensors of the future will allow top-quality cameras to be packed into a more user-friendly size like the FZ-7.
All of what you say about those limitations is true, I'm sure, for any given sample set of cameras. I think the key question is: if cameras got smaller, but the technology improved, can you still get acceptably good pictures? (whatever that means, it's all that matters). I don't doubt that can happen to a certain extent (look how good the pictures are off a modern compact digital camera compared to 20 years ago). As Anton suggested above, there is work going on in this area. How far it can go is the key question for me. I notice a number of people have mentioned the size of the camera. I'm not really sure that's an actual problem, more a perceived one, simply because of the current heavy/bulky lenses. I don't have any problem keeping my compact still (or as still as I can keep an SLR, anyway - I don't have the steadiest of hands). Of course, perceived problems are just as much of a market impediment as real ones :)
Apparently, the bigger the CCD the more light you can get falling on it. You get better pictures because you will have a better signal to noise ratio. Also you can get better night and low-light pictures, and get sharper pcitures without using a tripod (because a better signal to noise ratio means that the shutter speed can be reduced, reducing camera shake). The other thing I've noticed from camera magazines is that most photography reviewers (and users I think) are men and they mark camera's down if they are two small to be held confortably in larger hands.
Su-May, thanks for your comment. Indeed, I am quite impressed by my S80 - functionality wise, it's just fine. I think the slightly dodgy image quality round the fringes of the picture is what bothers me most. What you said about megapixels notwithstanding, bear in mind that the 'normal' mode you speak of doesn't alter the size of the final picture - it alters the compression on the picture to be more aggressive. Personally, I always leave my camera on 'superfine' (largest but smoothest) compression and largest picture size (in this case, 8MP) - I think the only reason I'd do otherwise was if I was seriously short on space. I have to admit that I too am finding the 400D quite appealing now, and it's been a family tradition to buy Canon, one that I don't feel like breaking, simply because they are reliable and robust. Nevertheless, I will make sure I take a quick look at the competition - Nikon in particular - although I think the cost and availability of add-on lenses is a big factor when buying an SLR.
Hi, I chanced upon this site surfing if there's another canon S80 owner. I'm happy with my compact SLR. The colours are terribly forgiving and thought it can be too rich, like too much magenta sometimes. Indeed mega pixels is seriously over rated. I switched to "normal" option while using the s80 because maximising image quality isn't about pixels, it's simply a good eye! Still I went to test canon EOS400 because it's a new thingo that's heavily enticing people like me : ) It's surely more promising when shooting night and moving shots. Of course there are other SLRs to compare with. I tried Sony, Nikon, Pentax and even Fuji and Canon's still more forgiving. I took all shots and then transfer to my laptop to compare the shots of an apple under yellow light, moving night buses. Canon produces richer and more attractive coloured shots for amateurs like me. In terms of battery life, I think it has the shortest, like 250 shots whereas the other brands promised many more. Last discovery, I shall get it in Singapore since I'll be there for a short visit. It's much cheaper. Even if the price is comparable, the list of relevant goodies that comes with it are damn worthy. Cheers
Andrew, If I were about to go on a residency in San Jose I'd certainly want a decent camera to take with me... :-) I spent six weeks in SJ in 2001 and look back at the photos I took with my then Ixus V and wish I could go out there now! If you want to have a good look at the 400D let me know and I'll bring it in one day.
I Agree with David. A large SLR body is nicer to hold - Easier to keep from shaking and stable. There is little market for a smaller SLR. Either you want access to all the nice lenses, and hence buy a SLR, otherwise you buy 2 compact cameras. One normal and one with a fair amount of zoom... there was a nice Canon compact camera like a small SLR with Image Stabilising lens that I was looking at when buying my G2...
Whew! Thanks everyone for your comments. @Adrian, I agree, that's the consensus. I think my artistic tastes in photographs are unusual and driven by two main attributes: resolution and colour contrast. My favourite photograph was of a Chinese factory, exhibited in an Edinburgh art gallery, about A0 size (I guess) and obviously taken on a medium or large-format camera. I stood for hours loving all the detail in the picture. I can't achieve that even with 12MP - but I'd like to have a go (although I'm very far from a pro). I'm grateful that you itemised the other other list though - I think I tend to disregard the more qualitative factors simply because they're hard to measure objectively and I'm no expert. I figure if I pay enough, I'll get 'good enough' quality for me... :) I see what you mean about the bridge camera, although a smaller manufacturer could nip in there with a smaller SLR and steal some of the market, forcing the incumbents to re-think. Sure, there are high barriers to entry: folks do have a lot of money invested in lenses. But I think that'll slow down, rather than stop, the trend. @Anton, It sounds like from what you and Adrian say that the lenses themselves are indeed hard to make smaller. It's good to hear, though, that new innovative stuff is coming along. I can't wait to see that, and given what everyone's said, maybe I will bow to my impatience and buy a 400D, but either way, I think there's a lot of excitement still to come in the camera market in 5-10 years. @David, I kinda understand, but isn't a lot of that due to the heavy lens? (one thing that I find awkward whenever I use an SLR is the tipping forward). Compact cameras don't seem to suffer from many complaints, and I suspect it's the lighter/smaller lens. Maybe the history of mobile phones shows that people want smaller, even if it's fiddlier :) But I should take a look at that, especially if I'm considering getting a 400D (which I now am :)
Hard to see DSLRs getting smaller when, for example, the Canon 350D/400D reviews consistently mark them down for poor handling based on the smaller size. For many owners of these cameras one of their first purchases is the battery grip specifically to make them larger!
Sorry, should have said Adrian, not Andy... oops...
The reason SLR's are big is to fit the lenses without looking and feeling silly. The lenses are big because they need to be. To get quality you need large pieces of glass. If digital sensors were more sensetive you would need less light. If they were smaller you could also get away with a smaller lens (though the quality of the picture will limit how small you can have the glass elements). If sensors were better you would need less light and hence could have smaller lenses. The biggest problem is that glass makes mediocre lenses... There have been some developments in the last year with optical materials with strong refraction indexes for a pane of the material (A flat lens that bends the light!). These changes will eventually change cameras, but for now they are difficult to produce and very exepnsive. I would not expect to see much changing soon, other than the quality of CCD's. Saying that, if we could make a 100mp CCD that was the size of current ones and far more sensetive (without the usualy loss of quality seen today) then you could get away with a simple lens and use digital zoom (100mp is huge images). As for waiting for the camera, you will soon spend far more on the lenses than the body of the camera, and current bodies are far superior to compact cameras. Why not buy a 400D as suggested by Andy, or even buy a second hand 350D and spend the difference on some lenses. In 2 years time your perfect body will be here, but that perfect lens will still cost far more than you would like
Whoops, that last comment was from me!
Just of of interest, why do you want a >12MP camera? The general consensus is that the megapixel war is over and you are much better basing purchasing decisions on other features such as performance in the areas of noise, handling, image stabilization, dust removal, lens availability and so on. All extra megapixels mean is bigger prints and more ability to crop in. A 10MP camera will allow you to print large prints at an acceptable DPI. In fact, if we take 300dpi as standard, then the difference in largest print size between 10MP and 12MP is minimal (12.91" x 8.64" versus 14.30" x 9.34") Unless you plan to go pro and will be planning to exhibit and therefore need huge prints, I'd say worrying about megapixels is unnecessary. What's more, you can pick up a 10MP DSLR including lens for less than £500 today (e.g. Canon 400D inc. 18-55 kit lens for £480 for Warehouse Express) To get back to lenses, there are things being done by the manufacturers to reduce DSLR size. Taking Canon for instance with the EF-S lens mount which purposefully takes advantage of smaller sensor size to push the optics back further towards the sensor, making the focal length and therefore lens smaller. Similar things can happen inside the lens itself thanks to things like diffractive optics. However as you say, these can only go so far. However, I don't think you'll see DSLRs themselves reduce any further than the current size of the smallest ones (Olympus E500 and the new Nikon D40 for instance) All manufacturers have an investment in the bridge camera market which fills the gap between digital compact and DSLR and I can't see them wanting to get rid of that segment. Besides, once you move to an interchangeable lens system on a DSLR, you'll find the number of lenses you'll collect soon outweighs any advantage gained by making the body smaller.