Ryan Jordan

The Fortunate Decay of Digital Camera Evolution: Uniformity in Digital Imaging

I’m writing a series of digital camera reviews at Backpacking Light over the next few months, including the Olympus E-P1, the Panasonic GF1, and the Leica X1 – three cameras that promise exceptional technical photographic performance for their size and weight.

In context, my own bias lens will be formulated by comparing these cameras to those that have achieved “classic” status in my own backcountry kit (which includes light, compact, high quality, simple cameras, and necessarily excludes DSLR’s and most (poor quality) small sensor compacts.

I first started leaving SLR cameras at home when I caught the lightweight bug in the late 1980s. I had been shooting a Nikon F1, Canon AE1, and Minolta Maxxum at the time, and ended up selling those kits to fund the purchase of a Leica M3 equipped with a 1960s vintage Leica M lens. Other than a brief foray off-trail (and for me, off-route!) into DSLR photography a few years ago, I’ve stuck with more compact cameras ever since, with the Leica M3 (and later, an M6), an Olympus XA, Nikon 28Ti, and Contax T3 capturing most of my favorite photographs during my mountaineering and backpacking trips. Kodachrome 64, and later, Fuji Velvia, were my primary films of choice for their beautiful color rendition and contrast.

Since I left the Contax T3 behind and dove into digital photography, I’ve had short affairs with many cameras, and longer affairs with only a few. Those few included one camera that by today’s standards would be ridiculed for its image quality: the Pentax Optio W60i. I took this little camera to Alaska in 2006 and because it was with me I captured some of the best images I’ve ever taken. No, they’re not gallery photos, but the camera captured enough image detail and color to produce (with no small bit of post processing!) photos with character, worthy of adorning the walls of my home.

But the standards that have stayed with me through the years of digital photography are few and far between, and limited primarily to two camera series: the Ricoh GRD (and its later brethren), and the Sigma DP1 and DP2. There are faster cameras out there, there are those that are more feature rich, and there are those that offer technically superior image quality. But there is something about these two camera families that distinguish them from the crowds a little: they produce out of camera photos with more character.

The character of a photograph is a hard thing to review, and compare among cameras. It’s one of those things that as a photographer, you feel in your heart, and sometimes your gut, more than in your mind. It’s the reason that you choose Kodachrome 64 over Fuji Velvia 50, or vice versa. And for some of us, it’s the reason why it’s so difficult to pull the Sigma DP2 out of our hands in favor of cameras that offer technical superiority when pixel peeping 100% crops.

“A hiker by a creek (sic).” A yawn-inducing out of camera JPG from the Panasonic GF1, or Canon S90, or Olympus E-P1, or Leica D-Lux 4, or … or … or …

This brings me to what I see as the “fortunate decay” in the evolution of digital cameras, and is reflected by my own experience peeping at pixels, and reading the highly technical reviews of cameras published by the likes of DPReview.com and others. That fortunate decay is the trend towards uniformity in the ability of digital cameras to capture technically outstanding images. I say that it’s a decay because camera makers are spending their time building cameras (and sensors) that serve technical analysts more than image viewers. So, we are on the cusp of seeing high ISO noise disappear, capturing 10+ EV of dynamic range, and resolving NNN lpmm of detail, and frankly, some think that in a few years, the sensor used in the camera will be irrelevant.

And, I say that this is a fortunate sort of decay, because it may reveal the need for a new type of digital camera market: one that is not necessarily focused on technical performance of the image sensor, but rather, upon the ability for the lens to send a character-filled image to the sensor, and the ability of the interface between camera and user to be minimized in a way that re-engages us as photographers rather than operators of little computers with lenses attached. This niche has been squarely introduced with the introduction of the Ricoh GRX: a camera controller that can accommodate various lens+sensor combinations.

In conclusion, I’m convinced that while sensor technical specifications will continue to rise (perhaps significantly, relative to where they sit today), the vast majority of mid- and large-sensor digital cameras, and a very large number of small-sensor compacts, will produce images capable of capturing enough data that they will all be able to produce just about any type of image that the photographer will want to produce. Thus, we’ll again return to the darkroom (digital this time, instead of chemical) to reveal an image’s character – and thankfully minimize the tool used to capture the image in the context of the larger process used to produce a final image for viewing.

In fact, after spending the last few months shooting the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1, it wouldn’t take much to convince me that these days may already be here, and that we might do well to spend less time focusing on a pixel peeper’s perspective of image quality and more time shopping cameras based on their weight, size, ergonomics, and simplicity – areas in which the Ricoh GR (digital) series and the Sigma DP series still have no competition.

The evolution of digital photography has placed necessary (but probably mis-prioritized) emphasis on the technical performance of sensors, and it’s caused even the most serious photographers to lose sight of the real goal: to capture photographs that tell a story. Technical uniformity, hopefully, will allow us to return to those roots.

My friend and hiking partner Alan Dixon tries to stay warm while filling his water bottle from Cedar Run in Shenandoah National Park on a cold, fall day, in the midst of a stark and leafless deciduous forest during an evening walk up 3,000 vertical feet of Appalachia en route to its crest at Hawksbill (November 2009).