Rant: The plateauing of 35mm digital camera sensor quality

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We are reaching the point where the evolution of sensor design is plateauing and we are seeing only minimal differences between different platforms. And I think this is a good thing because it forces us to return to the original question of how we choose cameras. This article was stimulated by people finding that Leica R9/DMR was taking photographs that were only slightly better in quality than the much less expensive Canon EOS 20D. The Nikon D2X photographs also rival those taken with the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II even though the sensor size is much different.

At this point in time, you could take equally stellar photographs with the following cameras: Nikon D2X, Canon EOS 20D, Canon EOS 1D(s) Mark II, Leica R9/DMR, Minolta alpha-7 digital, etc. I would suggest that most people would not be able to tell you which body was used with which in 13"x19" (Super A3) sizes except for the different lenses used. I.e., it's lens quality and not sensor quality that is becoming the limiting factor.

Ten years ago, we used to chose film bodies either because of the compatibility of the glass we put on it, or because of the body features, and not because one body takes better photographs than another. In digital terms, the sensor (the film) was the same across all 35mm cameras. In other words, a Canon EOS Rebel with the same glass could take an identically good photograph as a Canon EOS 1v because it shared the same sensor (35mm film). We chose the EOS 1v back then because of its superior environmental sealing, the eyepiece shutter, build quality, reliability, etc.

I predict we'll start to begin choosing our digital bodies based on factors other than sensor density and image quality. The reason you might choose the R9/DMR over the EOS-20D will become the same reason you originally chose the R8 over the EOS-5 ten years ago -- not because of the superior "film" since the film sensor was the same, but because the ergonomics and other mechanics were better.

In this brave new world of digital photography, if we want to upgrade to an entirely new grade of sensor, we'll use medium format digital sensors, which I've blogged about previously.


This is a really good development. I'm really hoping that camera manufacturers will now be able to innovate in the areas of usability, ergonomics, etc. For example, the Epson R-D1, aside from its high pricetag and a few quirks, is a really refreshing design: simple, straightforward. Perhaps Zeiss will follow on with a ZI-D. In the SLR world, I keep hoping that Maitani will come out of retirement and lead a design team that will produce an OM-4D.

But I wonder where the casualties will be. The digital photography market seems to have been built on fast product cycles, perseved obsolescence, and "must have" feature introductions. Shifting to long-term value may not be possible for more than one manufacturer.


I wonder if we won't reach the point where we can start customizing some of the features of our digital camera bodies. While I'm not going to be moving the wind lever around--oops, bad example for digital, but anyway--there's no reason whatsoever that I shouldn't see exactly what I want to see on my review display, instead of having to push a button three times to see the darn histogram, just because someone else doesn't use it.

The two areas that we need to see some work on are getting the current high-end stuff down into more affordable (say, thousand dollar or so) bodies, which will certainly happen, and making the damn things smaller! The RD-1 is certainly a big step over, say, a D2, but it's still huge compared to even an F3, much less an OM-4.

And hey, I'm with you on the Maitani thing. I just hope the OM4-D comes out before all my OM-4 bodies die.

I'd love programmable interfaces too. The Canon 10D/20D (with its programmable SET button) and the Nikon D2X (with its programmable function button) are about 10% of the way there. It'd be great if we could remap every single control dial and button to our own liking -- with macro features too.

I'd also reprogram Canon EOS cameras so they showed the current ISO in the viewfinder (only the 1D(s) can do this) as well as the current metering program (P/Av/Tv/M) in the viewfinder. These are my pet peeves about the EOS system....

Hm, programmable interface; that's an interesting road to tread. On the one hand, I'd like having a histogram, and my Pentax compact and my D100 can both be configured to display them; I have to fiddle with the Pentax periodically to make it do it, but the D100 comes up in the last display mode, which for me is always histograms.

I cannot say, however, that I am positively inclined toward being able to rewire all the buttons on the body. I've had this in smaller doses with my F100--I prefer that the shutter do AE lock only, and that a button on the back do AF lock, but that's not the way Nikon ships that camera and as a result it is very difficult for me to use factory configured F100s. I like having this feature on my F100 because I think the default route (AF and AE lock on shutter half-press) is broken--I would rather have the cameras ship from the factory in a non-broken state. This is very difficult to arrange for on a modern camera precisely because of the number of parameters to tune.

I would much prefer a simpler camera with less features and so less need for this--just like an FM2n is a much simpler camera than an F100. Insofar as the RD-1 might represent the beginning of a trend toward that I am positively inclined toward it.

I'm always a bit questioning when people apply the old form factors (35mm, Medium Format) to digital cameras. Certainly there is some overlap due to existing lenses and from user familiarity, but I see no reason in the future that sensors or lenses need to follow the traditional categories which you use here. Indeed, many of the sensors in the cameras you discuss are not the 24x36mm and it is pretty unlikely that "medium format" sensors will follow the traditional 6x6, 6x7 cm "medium format" of the past except perhaps as digital backs for existing cameras. With this in mind and with the ever increasing "goodness" of sensors I think that we will see a scaling down of camera size which balances "good enough" sensors with light weight, portability, longer battery life, just as 35mm came to prominence by offering better portability with "good enough" image quality. Size and weight are definitely ergonomic considerations and are in my opinion more important than something trivial like programmable buttons. But if photographers continue to think (and buy) in terms of things like the notion that it should look like a "35mm" camera then we will be slower to get there.

I don't think there's much chance that Maitani will come out of retirement to make an OM-4D. Still... if Epson can make a digital "Leica" is is it too much to ask for a digital camera in an OM package? Who would ever have dreamed back in the 70's that an OM-2 could fit inside an OM-1 body?

Just a follow up on this. I saw a news item today concerning Olympus. It looks like they are planning to release two new dslr's this year. A new pro model improving on the E-1 has been long-awaited. I wonder what an E-3(?) if that's what they will release will be like. Traditionally they do not come out with new models that are simply evolutionary improvements on the old. Their new cameras tend to shake up the photo world. Could an OM-4D be too much to expect?

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on June 5, 2005 12:22 PM.

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