Business Today

End of the pixel war

Megapixels no longer count in a digital camera, image processors do.

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: August 22, 2010

When the first consumer digital cameras hit shop shelves about a dozen years ago, it was evident to market gurus that film photography was on its way out. And, as digital cameras started delivering sharper images, professional photographers made the shift to what are called digital SLRs, short for single-lens reflex cameras, and film truly became history.

That mad rush to get sharper images soon became the War of the Megapixels. Weeks after one manufacturer launched a 3.2-megapixel camera, rivals would launch a 4.1-megapixel one and, soon, someone else would hit back with a five-megapixel machine. And as camera makers jostled on other features such as zoom, wide-angle lens and light sensitivity, buying a camera became a tricky proposition. Over the past year or so, thankfully, that appears to be coming to an end. Compact consumer digital cameras have topped out at between 10 and 14 megapixels and most digital SLRs pack in between 12 and 16 megapixels, though top-end models have 24 megapixels-plus.

To understand the flattening out of the megapixels curve, a primer is in order. What is a pixel? Simply put, it is one dot or a single piece of colour information on an image. A million pixels form a megapixel, the more the megapixels, the more colour information a camera can capture. However, basic colour information is not enough. Cameras from the top manufacturers have advanced optics and processing power that improve the quality of the image, the colour temperature, sharpness and contrast.

The reason more megapixels do not make sense anymore is because at full resolution on a 14-megapixel image, you will need an array of 12 screens to see the image in full and you could take a billboard-sized printout. For images that get put up on online social networks or have small 4x3 inch prints taken, five-odd megapixels are more than enough. In fact, even though memory is increasingly becoming a commodity, many manufacturers recommend that you cut back the size of your image on some digital cameras to save space on the memory card.

What then matters when you buy a camera today? Especially, when your purchase will be among what Hiroshi Takashina, the India Managing Director of Nikon, estimates at two million compact digital cameras sold in the country this year. Note that price is hardly a swing factor in such purchases, given that there are 10-megapixel cameras starting at Rs 4,000, and top-end digital compact cameras with 14 megapixels and a loaded feature set at Rs 10,000 and upwards.

The first thing to remember is that while megapixels do not matter much anymore, colours do - which is decided by the quality of the sensor and the image processor. This is perhaps why companies like Canon, Nikon and Sony still command a slight price premium. So, this is the buying drill BT suggests: take a picture or two with the camera and view the image on a computer screen. Next, settle for a feature set that suits your needs even if it is less than all that's on offer. All digital cameras also come with a loaded feature set, including touchscreen displays and high light-sensitivity but these make them even more expensive.

The next wave in digital cameras will be driven by high definition (HD) video abilities. Currently, only the top digital SLR cameras such as the Canon 7D and Nikon D3S can take full HD video, with compact digital cameras stuck at 720p resolution. With HD televisions being sold in large numbers - last year an estimated 1.5 million were sold in India - video recorded from cameras can be played back on these screens. That could lead to digital cameras killing camcorders.

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