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Tracking the Hottest Trends in Image Capture

A look at the latest trends in image capture and where the technology is heading.

Today, there is more digital-capture equipment available than ever before. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there is so much available in the marketplace that it is more difficult than ever to make a decision when it comes to which tools to add to your arsenal. Intensifying the confusion is the fact that you can now achieve great digital capture for just a fraction of what it cost a few years ago.

The capture side of the marketplace is clipping along at a breakneck pace and the only constant is, well, change. I do, however, see a number of trends shaking out, and what follows is my take on some of the hottest trends in digital capture.

The increase and the decrease
Just as drinks at the local convenience store keep getting bigger (a recent drive through Montana revealed a quick-mart selling 1-gallon containers of Mountain Dew with a straw), so do the sensors in digital cameras. Today, a number of 10-Mpxl compacts can be had for around $500. A few years ago, you couldn’t even get a 10-Mpxl digital SLR, and the best digital backs were in the 12- to 16-Mpxl range (with sticker prices equivalent to a fairly well-appointed 3 series BMW).

Granted, image quality on these compacts hasn’t approached the pro cameras, but the ones I’ve tested are surprisingly good, and having a 10-Mpxl point-and-shoot really opens up a lot of cropping possibilities. Just don’t depend on them in extreme low-light conditions-you will still have to have one of the big boys for this. I also have noticed that quite a few of these cameras now offer RAW-file capture, further enhancing their usability.

Pro cameras continue to get larger sensors as well, with 10 Mpxl seeming to be the norm, while the higher-end models from Canon and Nikon sport 12 to 17 Mpxl. And if you think we’ve hit the megapixel ceiling, keep in mind that recently introduced Hasselblad medium-format camera now offers a whopping 39-Mpxl capture.

According to the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) and the New York-based NPD Group, nearly 50% of all digital cameras sold in 2006 (through September) were cameras of 6 Mpxl or more. Further, sales of 6- to 6.9-Mpxl cameras increased by more than 550% in 2006 versus 2005, while sales of cameras of 7 Mpxl or more increased by nearly 100% in 2006.

In conjunction with the sensors getting bigger, a welcome change is the increased real estate on the LCD screens at the back of the camera. If you’re like me and over 20 years old (much older in my case), you will really appreciate that most cameras now offer a 2.5-in. LCD and some have even gone to 3 in. The larger screen makes it a lot easier to handle most cameras when viewing menus, and is also a huge help when reviewing pictures that have just been shot or when using the LCD screen for composing a shot.

While megapixels and LCD sizes are on the upswing, it seems that the camera bodies themselves are slimming down-in weight as well as size, evident even in the pro digital SLRs. This has its benefits, just in terms of being easier to carry about, but also has some drawbacks. For instance, as the camera bodies continue to shrink, the buttons keep shrinking as well-and my paws are just too big to comfortably operate some of these devices. My 12-year-old has no problem with this trend, but there are days when I miss my old fashioned Nikon F. Another downside is that the smaller something is, the easier it is to misplace.

Living on the ragged edge
We live in a rapid culture, and it’s staggering to see how fast the gear we use has become. When I began my journey down the Photoshop path (with version 1.0), you could run out for lunch while applying the Unsharp Mask filter. Those days are happily over, and with Photoshop CS3 and other applications written for the Intel Duo and Quad Core processors, we will all get yet another jump in raw horsepower. I sincerely hope that the new Microsoft Vista and the next generation of the Mac OS will not just bog down this new capacity and will offer more speed-not simply provide more widgets. For imaging professionals, perhaps a stripped-down version of the OS that doesn’t have all the options is in order?

Along with processor-speed gains, storage is also getting quite a bit faster: 10,000 rpm drives are now commonplace, and memory cards read and write data a lot faster than they did just a year ago-helping fuel the imaging professional’s need for speed. Back when we had 1-GB cards, it wasn’t that much of an issue, but since moving up to 8-GB cards, the faster you can get the data downloaded, the better.

Unheard of a couple of years ago, having a terabyte’s worth of storage is the new status symbol, and thanks to the new 750-GB drives, it can be done in about 15 minutes. A few of the hard-drive manufacturers I talked to hinted that there may even be 1-TB on a disc by fall.

Putting together large RAID arrays is also much easier than before; I’ve seen a lot of aftermarket solutions for this on both platforms. Those of you on Mac platforms can rejoice at some of the new goodies from Sonnet Technologies, for instance; its new G5 Jive adapter lets you put three more drives inside your machine, and it looks factory installed. While the question remains if this will translate into more productivity, those of you on the ragged edge of the imaging world will be able to get things done more quickly. Time is money, after all, and every minute saved is a minute that won’t be spent in a panic over when FedEx is expected at the door.

Falling prices and rent vs buy
As I indicated earlier, the good news is that the cost of putting your hands on all this cool hardware has been dropping. Whether you are new to the industry or a seasoned professional, you can upgrade or retrofit your studio with whatever you need for a fraction of what the worst performing gear would have cost even a couple of years ago.

Today, with decent digital SLRs in the $1000 range and a plethora of 17-in. printers available for well under $2000, you can start a decent digital studio for less than $10,000.

Which leads us to a related course of action: rent vs. buy. When I started in the studio business, almost every photographer I knew owned their gear. Big city guys in New York rented, but that was the exception to the rule. These days, however, quite a few photographers I know all over the country own precious little gear; they often keep a minimum complement to shoot that last-minute job, but that’s it.

Interestingly enough, the rent scenario typically arises not just because of the cost, but rather because of the rapid change in technology. As these cameras become paperweights faster than ever, it makes more sense for a busy working pro to just rent. Granted, it does mean staying a bit more up-to-date on the technology, but the positive side is that instead of trying to depreciate equipment, you can take the rental expense as a straight write-off at the end of the tax year. I am curious though, once 16- to 32-Mpxl cameras become the norm, will this trend will reverse again?

My rule of thumb: If you can’t amortize it in 6 to 18 months, don’t buy it. The technology is changing too fast to consider any of this gear a long-term investment.

Digital-specific lenses, Photoshop add-ons, and additional features
A few years ago, Olympus introduced its Olympus E system, a line of lenses designed for a digital sensor from the ground up. Taking advantage of the flatness of a digital sensor-instead of the compromises that come with designing around the curl in film-Olympus was able to create lenses that had superior edge-to-edge sharpness. Another side benefit of this technology was a group of lenses that were more compact than legacy lenses, which had to accommodate the larger image circle of a frame of 35mm film.

Now, all of the major lens manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and we all benefit. In addition to a couple of aftermarket lens manufacturers adopting Olympus’s four-thirds system, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax also have created their own lines of digital-specific lenses for their cameras with APS-sized sensors.

The obstacle to this approach is of course, standardization. Until the major manufacturers choose to abandon legacy product lines, this technology will not be fully implemented. Even Leica has a digital rangefinder now, however, so there is hope.

Software, too, is becoming more and more powerful. A number of great companies are creating products that can tremendously expand the capabilities of Photoshop in a number of areas. Whether you want to make some minor color adjustment, sharpen your pictures, or compensate for lens distortion, there are more options than ever.

A lot of these companies also offer a number of great ways to creatively alter your images, going way beyond what we used to be able to accomplish via filters and darkroom magic. Nikon, for instance, has worked with Nik to develop some exciting things with its Capture NX program; Capture NX takes a completely different approach to image editing and the interface to perform these tasks. Again, all of this technology is getting much more user-friendly versus the products from 10 years ago.

Another example is the latest version of DXO Optics Pro (v 4.1), which corrects for optical anomalies as well as performing color and sharpness correction. DXO offers it in three different versions, depending on what kind of camera you use. Regardless of whether you use the best digital SLR or a point-and-shoot, DXO Optics Pro works wonders on an image.

Meanwhile, a series of camera features have become standard on many digital SLRs. Here are a just a few of the features I’ve noted across a range of cameras:
* Dust-reduction: Whether it be an ultrasonic protective feature in front of the sensor (Leica’s DigiLux 3) or a Dust Delete Data function such as that on the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi SLR, these features are intended to rid an image of dust.

* Shake-reduction system: a la the Pentax K10D and the Fuji-film FinePix S9100, this works to help prevent blurred images.

* Preset modes: Some cameras are now offering a score of these; the Olympus Evolt E-330, for instance, offers 20 pre-programmed Scene Select modes including Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Children, Sports, Underwater, and Panorama.

* In-camera editing/retouch features and built-in digital filters: the Nikon D40, for example, offers D-Lighting to brighten dark pictures, Red-eye correction, Image Trim, Image Overlay, Small Picture, Monochrome, and Filter Effects (Skylight, Warm filter, Color balance).

Don’t rule out scanners
An often forgotten part of the capture equation is the trusty scanner. This technology has also plummeted in price in the last few years and, as a result, there are some great flatbeds out there that make fantastic scans and will cost you less than $1000.

And if you just need something to produce comp scans, you can pick up a low-end flatbed for $100; you’ll be startled at how good the scans are compared to the quality of a scan from just 5 to 10 years ago. Even scanners in the 11 x 17-in. range have become much more reasonably priced, which opens up a lot of possibilities for the design community.

A quick sampling of recently released flatbeds includes:
* Microtek’s ArtixScan M1 is a film and flatbed combo capable of scanning 35mm, 6cm, and 4x5-in. film and can take on reflective art and prints up to 8.5 x 14 in. The scanner offers 4800 x 9600-dpi resolutions and 48-bit color depth. It has autofocus capabilities and also features EDIT-Microtek’s glassless scanning architecture that allows the optical system to scan the film emission without looking through the glass plate that supports reflective materials on a flatbed scanner (the film is supported in a tray inside the scanner below the glass plate). MSRP: $699.

* Epson’s Perfection V700 Photo scanner features optical resolutions up to 6400 dpi (12,800 dpi maximum interpolated resolution), 48-bit scanning with 4.0 dynamic range for transparencies, and a dual-lens scanning system. It has an 8.5 x 11.7-in. maximum scanning area and three scan modes: high-speed, monochrome, and full-color. A Pro version of the scanner adds high-pass optics, a fluid-mount assembly to reduce scratch, Newton rings, and Monaco EZcolor software. Prices: $549 ($799 to $899 for the Pro version).

* Visioneer’s OneTouch 9520 Photo Scanner features pre-configured buttons "for easy, out-of-the-box scanning." The scanner offers 4800-dpi resolutions and 48-bit color data and is bundled with Corel Paint Shop Pro X, ScanSoft’s PaperPort, and a suite of software from ArcSoft. Price: $199.99.

And while the need for film scanning is on the decline, you shouldn’t necessarily rule film scanners out of the game either. While I haven’t shot a frame of film in years, I know a lot of photographers that still do. Now is a better time than ever to add a good film scanner to your toolbox, if you have the need.

For those of you with a need for a wide-format scanner, those units also are seeing some interesting changes in productivity and their ability to take on a variety of projects.

For instance, Colortrac’s SmartLF Gx 42 is a 42-in. CCD-based scanner that comes in monochrome, color, and Express Color models. It offers up to 9600-dpi resolution and 48-bit color data, and is capable of scanning media from 6- to 48-in. wide and handling media up to 0.02-in. thick in its Gx version and up to 0.8-in. thick in its GxT thick-media version. MSRP: $11,495 to $14,895, depending on model and media handling.

Meanwhile, Vidar has recently updated its entire line of seven rollfed wide-format color/mono scanners, enabling all of them to capture color at 48 bit and graytone at 16 bit. Each scanner is available in Base or Plus models, with the differences being speed and resolution. Base and Plus units offer true resolutions from 200 to 600 dpi; the Base units have an enhanced resolution of 1200 dpi, while Plus scanners have an enhanced resolution of 9600 dpi. These units can scan media up to 15-mm thick, have USB 2.0 connectivity, and offer Automatic Thickness Adjustment Control.

The promise of digital is finally fulfilled
Granted, there is always room for improvement, but whether you are talking about an inexpensive camera and printer or the most expensive tools for professional use, the image quality that you can now achieve surpasses what silver-based imaging offered not too long ago.

The color gamut is increased, the noise level is down, and this stuff has become pretty easy to use out-of-the-box-both on the capture side and the print side. It’s not as easy as dropping a roll of film in your SLR and handing it off to the lab, but it’s darn close and the results are much better. Today, anything I could have done with film 5 to 10 years ago, I can do better, faster and cheaper with digital.

Based in the Pacific Northwest, Jeff Dorgay (tonepub@yahoo.com) is a photographer, writer, and publisher who has been involved in the photography market for more than 25 years.

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