The early generations of digital cameras focused mainly on matching the quality, speed and performance that photographers had come to expect from their film cameras. With that milestone reached and surpassed, camera makers are now taking on bigger challenges and building cameras that add features never before possible with film. Some of these features are even taking on tasks that, until now, required a fair amount of work in the computer.
1. HD Video
It has been just over a year since Nikon introduced the D90, the first DSLR with HD video, which can shoot 720p HD at 24 fps. That was followed shortly by Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II, which can shoot 1080p full HD video at 30 fps. Since then, several more HD-capable DSLRs have been introduced, including Canon’s EOS T1i and EOS 7D, Nikon’s D5000 and D300S, and the Pentax K-7 and K-x. Panasonic has put HD video in two Micro Four Thirds models (which take interchangeable lenses, but aren’t DSLRs), and Olympus has put it in the E-P1 (also a compact interchangeable-lens Micro Four Thirds model). And, while compact digital cameras have offered standard-definition video capture for years, today more than 40 models from the likes of Canon, Casio, Fujifilm, Kodak, Leica, Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung and Sony offer HD video.
Having video on board is a useful option, allowing you to capture action without carrying a camcorder in addition to a still camera. HD means better image quality, especially nice if you plan to view your videos on an HDTV. There are limitations, however. Video clips are typically limited in length. Also bear in mind that HD video files take up lots of room on memory cards and require a fair amount of computing horsepower to edit.
Because DSLRs have much larger image sensors than most compact digital cameras (and HD camcorders), the DSLRs produce better image quality (especially at higher ISOs). They also produce a more limited “cinematic” depth of field and take a wide range of interchangeable lenses. However, an HD camcorder still is probably a better choice if shooting video is your primary objective.
2. In-Camera HDR
Having the ability to hold detail throughout a high-contrast scene has been a dream of film photographers since the invention of film. High-dynamic-range (HDR) digital photography makes it possible. Until recently, HDR was done via software, meaning more time in front of the computer. Today, camera makers are putting this capability into cameras. Pentax’s K-7 and K-x can take three different exposures of a scene and blend the best highlight, midtone and shadow detail into a single HDR image. Sony’s new DSLR-A550 can do this with two shots, one exposed for the highlights and one for the shadows. In-camera HDR isn’t as flexible as doing it via software, but can be very handy when you just want to expand detail from highlights through shadows, rather than do special effects.
Note that many DSLRs provide an automatic lighting-correction feature, which also improves detail in highlights and shadows. Examples are Canon’s Auto Lighting Optimizer and Highlight Tone Priority, Nikon’s Active D-Lighting, Olympus’ Shadow Adjustment Technology, Pentax’s Dynamic Range Expansion and Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimizer.
3. Sweep Panorama
A popular photo technique that has been labor- and computer-intensive until recently is panoramic imaging. With the right software, you can take a series of photos and stitch them together into one wide (or tall) image, showing a far greater angle of view than is possible in a single shot with the lens used. Now, this capability has come to the camera. With the Sweep Panorama feature in Sony’s Cyber-shot HX1 compact camera, you just press the shutter button, then “sweep” the camera horizontally or vertically. The camera will combine the shots into a single image covering an angle of view up to 224 degrees.
4. Face Detection
One challenge when photographing people is getting the focus and exposure right for the subject’s face. With face-detection technology, the camera automatically recognizes human faces in a scene, adjusting focus, exposure (including flash) and even white balance accordingly. Face detection is available in many compact digital cameras, as well as a growing number of DSLRs, including Canon’s EOS 50D, 5D Mark II and Rebel T1i; Nikon’s D90 and D5000; Olympus’ E-30, E-420, E-450, E-520 and E-620; Pentax’s K-7 and K-x; and Sony’s DSLR-A550 and A500.
Face-detection technology is ever evolving. Smile detection, available in compacts and DSLRs like the Sony A500, can automatically fire the camera when it detects a subject’s smile. Blink detection, available in a number of compact cameras, including Pentax’s new Optio W60 and Sony’s Cyber-shot W290, among others, warns the photographer when a subject blinked during a shot, so the image can be reshot on the spot.
As if that’s not enough, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1 and DMC-GF1 offer Face Recognition, which can identify a preregistered specific person in a scene—handy when you want to make sure the focus is on your favorite people.
5. AF Fine-Tuning
Cameras and lenses are precision instruments. Even so, there’s a chance that a given lens might be “out of sync” with a given camera body. Many of today’s DSLRs allow you to compensate for this by shooting a series of test shots using the camera’s AF-tuning feature to adjust focus closer to and farther from the camera in fine increments. You then examine the resulting images on your computer monitor, pick the sharpest one, and set the camera accordingly. The camera will thereafter apply that correction each time you use that lens. You can store corrections for a number of lenses, which varies per camera model. Canon calls this feature AF Microadjustment, Nikon calls it AF Fine Tuning, Olympus calls it AF Focus Adjust, Pentax calls it AF Adjustment, and Sony calls it AF Micro Adjustment.
6. Improved High-ISO Image Quality
Most of today’s DSLRs produce amazingly good image quality at ISO settings of 800 and even 1600, with some going as high as 6400 with good results. (Settings above 6400 are best left for low-light emergencies, especially with smaller-sensor cameras.) Considering that ISO 800 was about the limit for good results with film, that’s truly remarkable. Lots of new technology makes this high-ISO performance possible, including better sensors, smarter image processors and processing algorithms, and more sophisticated noise-reduction systems.
Nikon has been a leader in high-ISO equivalents. The new Nikon D3S, which has a normal ISO range of 200-12,800, offers an expanded range all the way up to an
astounding ISO 102,400! Right behind the D3S came Canon’s EOS-1D Mark IV, which also offers a maximum ISO of 102,400. These are really game-changing numbers and even more impressive when you consider how far the technology has come in a short time.
That said, all digital cameras still produce their best image quality at lower ISOs, generally the lowest setting in their “normal” ISO range. “Expanded” ISO settings, whether higher or lower than the normal range, result in reduced image quality, so stay in the “normal” range for best image quality and at the lower end of that range unless the situation really requires a higher ISO setting.
7. Lens Corrections
Even the best camera lenses have their vignetting, distortions and aberrations; less expensive lenses often exhibit these problems more dramatically. It’s possible to correct these things using software, but that’s time-consuming and sometimes tricky. Today, some DSLRs can do it in-camera automatically, which saves you lots of computer time. The Pentax K-7 and K-x can correct distortion and lateral chromatic aberration when DA lenses are used. Canon’s EOS 50D, 5D Mark II and 7D can correct for vignetting via their Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction feature. Nikon’s D3, D3X, D700, D300S and D90 can correct for lateral chromatic aberration (fringing). The best part is, these corrections are done automatically when a compatible lens is used.
8. Superfast Shooting
Top digital SLRs have long been endowed with some truly quick shooting rates: The current speed champs are Canon’s EOS-1D Mark III, which can shoot its 10.1-megapixel images at up to 10 frames per second, and Nikon’s D3, which can shoot 12.1-megapixel FX-format (full-frame) images at 9 fps or 5.1-megapixel DX-format (APS-C) images at 11 fps.
Compact digital cameras can compete here and even surpass the fastest SLRs. Casio offers a whole lineup of high-speed models, topped by the Exilim EX-F1, which can shoot 6-megapixel still images at 60 fps (7 fps with flash) and movies at up to 1200 fps (at reduced resolution). Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 can shoot 9.1-megapixel images at 10 fps (for up to 10 images in a burst). Pentax’s X70 can shoot 5-megapixel images at 11 fps for up to 21 shots in a burst or bursts of 7 full-resolution, 12-megapixel images at 4 fps. If you want to do stop-action sequences of sports activities, you no longer have to buy a pro DSLR.
9. Improved Live-View in DSLRs
When Olympus introduced Live View to the DSLR with the E-330 model in 2006, it gave the DSLR user benefits that compact digital camera users had been enjoying for years. But the implementation was a bit, well, “clunky.” With a compact digital camera, you were in Live View mode the moment you switched the camera on; you didn’t have to go through menus and flip switches to use it.
Today, live view in DSLRs is much easier to use and more effective. It’s handy for odd-angle shooting—especially in the few DSLRs that have tilting/swiveling LCD monitors—and for composing and manually focusing landscapes and studio still-life images.
DSLR cameras use phase-detection AF, which is quick and accurate, but requires the SLR mirror to be in the down (“viewing”) position to function. When the camera is in Live View mode, the mirror must be in the up (“shooting”) position, so the image can reach the sensor. Thus, if you use phase-detection AF in Live View mode, the mirror must briefly drop into the viewing position so the AF system can do its thing, and this momentarily disrupts the live view. So DSLR manufacturers also include contrast-based AF right off the image sensor. This doesn’t disrupt the live view, but it’s slower than phase-detection AF.
Sony (in its DSLR-A550, A500, A380 and A330 models) employs a second sensor, in the viewfinder, to produce the live image. Thus, it can use phase-detection AF without disrupting the live view. The drawback is that the optical viewfinder is smaller than with other DSLRs.
10. In-Camera Effects
Olympus introduced six Art Filters in its E-30 model and has incorporated at least some of them in each model thereafter. These filters let you apply such effects as bold poster colors, delicate colors, pinhole camera, soft focus, high-contrast grainy monochrome and more. With the new E-P1, you even can apply the effects to movies. Olympus also offers the ability to superimpose one image over another right on the live-view LCD monitor for composite images.
While Olympus promotes these features more widely than other manufacturers, theirs aren’t the only cameras to offer built-in special effects. For example, Nikon’s D90, D5000 and D3000 DSLRs offer fisheye and color-outline effects, as well as color overlay; Nikon’s D3000 adds a cross-screen (star) filter and color-intensifier effect. Pentax’s new K-7 and K-x DSLRs offer a number of effects, including toy camera, retro, high-contrast, extract color (leaves a selected color in the image and turns the rest black-and-white), soft-focus, starburst and fisheye. Nearly all DSLRs offer monochrome capability, with colored filter effects for tonal control.