Monday, 9 March 2009

640K...

...ought to be enough for anybody - Many people thought of this famous sentence when they have heared Akira Watanabe's opinion about megapxiel race. The biggest difference between two statement is that Gates told it as a general rule but Wantabe said: "...for covering most applications most customers need."

Is this statement a suicide from a marketing point of view? It really can be dangerous. It is unpredictable how customers will react to the permanent amount of megapixels + increasing image quality while other manufacturers continously increase the resoulution. Everybody knows that megapixels are the most attractive (and most misinterpreted) feature on the market.

Is it really imaginable that one of the most innovative manufacturer who fabricates scanning electron-microscopes suddenly discovers that their system is a dead end? They precisely knew the limits given by optical and phisical laws when they decided to launch the 4/3 system. I think that Wantabe was very honest. He did not say that more than twelve megapixels is simply unnecessary in photography. He talked about most customers and most applications, and I must agree with him. I used an Olympus E-3 during the last 12 months. This camera has some pesky imperfections but my biggest problem is to exploit the ten megapixels. The real-life themes are not test charts, not papers glued onto a flat surface. The perfect AF, ergonomy, camera speed and good noise characteristic worth much more than some extra megapixels over ten, and Olympus wants to focus on these features.

There are a couple of 60cm x 45cm prints on the wall of my living room and anybody who has seen them was pleased with quality. Of course, there are applications where relatively easy to hit the resoulution limits. Panorama-stiching is a solution for most landscapes in this case. I have some panorama photos which were made under 3-5 seconds without a tripod and they are nearly perfect from a technical point of view. By using this technique, and in exchange for some extra work, we can get rid of corner sharpness problems of wide-angle lenses. But such techniques are not panacea. Large group portraits and some professional work require fullframe and medium format cameras, there is nothnig to do.

The launch of the Canon 1D Mark II in 2004 was a milestone in professional digital photography. Many professionals have dropped their stereotypes about dSLR becasue it was the first which was widely used in studios, sports events and could substitute analog cameras in most cases. The announcement had the same effect in the amateur world. I can remember that mere indication of the camera type was enough to get the maximum points at most of photo-sharing sites. The downsized, 8 megapixel image of 4/3 cameras will have reached or exceeded the quality of the 1D Mark II in next 1-2 years, moreover it is happened already from some point of view.

Today, many 10-12 megapixel dSLR are used for professional applications and most of them are the flagships of their strict category. Are they really temporary solutions? Every photographer who bought a Nikon D3 did it because of a necessity until 16-20 megapixel version are announced? Or are the needs of users continously increasing? How can this be reconciled with the legends about the resolution of the films? High resolution films have been overtaken by the Nikon D3 and the Canon 1D Mark III by many years. So where is the logic in worrying around twelve megapixels? I think it is nowhere.

The evolution of highly integrated sensors has just begun so maybe the real number of megapixels will be indifferent in the future. The first two steps were the individual A/D converters for every coloumn to increase speed and precision and reduce noise (Sony Exmor), and on-chip exposure-bracketing to increase the dynamic range (Fuji EXR, Panasonic in the future). The integration drifts in a direction that every pixel or pixel-group will behave like a little computer, and the consequences can be astonishing: colour pixel binning (quasi three layer), sensor aided anti-shake/anti-motion-blur, auto-stich, high-quality upsampling, auxillary data recording for post processing (DOF, noise reduction) etc. The evolution is unforeseeable also for Olympus engineers.

I would write many pros and cons about this resolution limit. The limit in itself is not an advantage. Higher resolution images can be resized down to twelve megapixels anytime. The gaps between pixels or microlenses will exists forever so they will reduce the pixel fill ratio stronger in higher resolution sensors, but maybe the gap will be negligible in the future. Only the harmony of the whole system can be an advantage. The market will have the last word. If Olympus can attain their promises about image quality, reliability and services, and keep the price under that of competitive products, customers will be the winners. But holes in lens-palette must be filled irrespectively of megapixels. Olympus has to rethink its in-camera image processing and AA-filter strategy (not removing) to keep itself in the market. I have niggling opinion about this but it is pointless to talk about it without understanding signal processing basics. I am working on a new website which will help in it by my unique interactive, illustrative method.

2 comments:

csgzs said...

Just a note: my initial review of the Olympus E-3 was based on a comparison with a D1mkII. Except for slightly earlier highlight clipping, the performance was identical even when looking at the image at 100% magnification.

Parci said...

Small correction: Gates never actually said this legendary sentence, it is a common misconception. :)