Monday, December 19, 2005

The State of Digital Cameras

Most of the photos I shoot these days are digital (using a Canon Powershot G5). The immediacy of digital and the ease with which I can photos into my computer and up on the web are big wins for me—at least for many purposes. I've also run into a number of common limitations and annoyances with the G5 that are common to the cameras of its class (not really a "point and shoot" given that it's higher-end than that but I'm not sure what else to call it). But that's a topic for another post. For today, I thought I'd throw out some thoughts on the state of digital SLRs.

Last week, I had the opportunity to briefly play with a Canon EOS 5D at B&H Photo in New York. This is Canon's newest "prosumer" or advanced amateur digital SLR body and it's significant for two reasons: its sensor is full frame and it's (getting close to) reasonably-priced.

For me and many others who have a stable of Canon EOS lenses for their film SLR backs, the full frame sensor is significant. It means that a 20mm wide angle lens is still a 20mm lens. With smaller sensors, the focal length is effectively multiplied. Thus, that 20mm lens now acts like a not-so-wide-angle 32mm lens (20 * 1.6). This isn't such a big deal (in fact it may not be much of a negative at all) if you mostly shoot telephotos, but if you use wide angles a lot it is. Of course, a larger sensor can also mean more pixels (all other things being equal), but with pixel counts on even smaller sensors (such as on the EOS 20D) exceeding 8 megapixels, this is a secondary consideration for me. (The EOS 5D is 12 megapixels.)

In other respects too, the EOS 5D is more comparable to film bodies in the same general category of Canon's lineup. This is where touch and feel come in. It's solid and beefy and has a large clear viewfinder. Contrast that with Canon's sub-$1K Digital Rebel XT which has a pretty decent set of specs (except for not being full frame), but is almost too small for me to hold comfortably and the viewfinder looks tiny. Compared to my EOS 3 film back, the 5D's focusing system isn't quite as sophisticated. There are doubtless other differences as well. (Some discussions I've read suggest that the weather seals may not be as complete on the 5D as the 3.) However, for the most part, the two bodies seem quite equivalent—subject to the inevitable differences between film and digital.

What of the price?

This is where the EOS 5D makes the most significant advances—while still falling a bit short. A full-frame sensor was previously avaiable from Canon, but only for about $8K with the EOS1Ds Mark II. While everything's relative I suppose, this price clearly puts it out of the reach of all but the most determined (or wealthy) amatuer. At a bit over $3K, the EOS 5D is in a whole different price category, albeit still a relatively high one. It's still more than twice the price of an EOS 3. (Today, about $3,300 vs. $1,250—although I suspect that we'll start seeing deals and rebates for the 5D once it's not quite so new.)

Overall conclusion? Digital SLRs are approaching function/price parity with film bodies but they're not there quite yet. If we think of it as needing another Moore's Law doubling, that would put it at 18 to 24 months for parity—which is probably about right for another generation of camera body.

See detailed review of EOS 5D here.