Big Deals Versus Small Deals

(commentary)

If we were to believe every marketing claim, every fan boy proclamation, every overenthusiastic post on the Internet, every new camera has some new Big Deal in it that “changes everything.” 

Sorry to burst bubbles, but no. 

Is my MacBook Pro 13” Retina better than the MacBook Air 13” it replaced? Yes. Is it a Big Deal? No. In fact, I gave up one thing (weight) for another (display/processor). 

The same is now true with compact cameras, mirrorless cameras, and DSLRs. With the upcoming CP+ show in Japan we're going to get a plethora of new marketing claims, fan boy dancing, and over enthusiasm in postings. And it’ll all start this week with the first major announcements.

So if we’re now in the land of Small Deals, what exactly are Small Deals?

  • One stop improvement in something. DR, High ISO, doesn’t matter what it is. One stop is a Small Deal now, as I can shoot at ISO 6400 and get usable results for almost any reasonable output size with most any new camera these days. 
  • More pixels. While the numbers look incredibly larger (50mp versus 36mp, for example), the actual resolution improvements don’t look so big (18% max).
  • Faster anything. Frame rate, focus speed, EVF update, doesn’t matter what it is. The improvements are another example of marginal percentage gain over what we currently can do (or in some cases, getting marginally closer to state-of-the-art of the highest end cameras).
  • New features. Adding touchscreen capabilities to the LCD, adding more customizable buttons, adding time lapse (as opposed to interval shooting), adding more bracketing options, et.al. It takes me 800+ pages to document current Nikon DSLRs in reasonably deep detail as it is. The problem here is that one person’s wanted feature is another person’s added complexity. Menus just keep getting longer and more difficult to navigate quickly.


Do I want Small Deal gains? Absolutely. Gains are gains. Since I have to keep my gear up to date to keep these sites current and relevant, new cameras with Small Deals in them mean that my gear gets better in small doses all the time. Why would I frown on that? 

Would Small Deals have compelled me as a working pro to upgrade? Not nearly as often, sometimes not at all. For example, I still see little reason why someone should trade in a D3s for a D4 or D4s. The Small Deals you’d acquire just won’t make you more money, nor would they show up in your images unless you were really pushing at the edges of what 12mp can do. 

Thing is, the camera makers are kings of incrementing Small Deals. The R&D groups in Japan are like worker ants in their persistence and dedication to their job. Every generation a Small Gain. Generation comes quickly after generation now, too.

Yes, over time Small Deals can turn out to be Big Deals. Remember, we started the DSLR era at a 2.5mp size that was fairly noisy at ISO 1600. Worker ants in Japan made that 6mp, 8mp, 12mp, 16mp, 24mp, 36mp, and soon 50mp. They chipped away at ISO and made very usable 1600, then 3200, then 6400. So, again, I want small gains. They turn into Big Deals if you can wait long enough.

So what are Big Deals, then?

  • Full capture of dynamic range. Doesn’t matter what scene you’re shooting, black to brightest would all be captured in the data bits. Some of us do this via HDR at the moment, but it would be a Big Deal for the camera to just do it in one capture.  
  • Photo Electrons separated from all other Electrons. Bottom line, we count photons which we do by converting them into what I term here as Photo Electrons. But there are plenty of other electrons floating around inside our camera’s electronics with the potential to alter that count and make it incorrect. Some say you can’t separate the two. I think we eventually will, and that would be a really Big Deal. Note that this doesn’t get rid of all noise. We still have the randomness of photons themselves to deal with in really low light.
  • Near infinite captures. We press the shutter release, hoping to capture a moment in time. Did we? Doh, no, “missed it by that much.” Wait, what if the camera captured the moments before and after and allowed us to explore them after the fact to see if one of those were better? Big Deal. On the flip side, this is a big hairy storage and UI problem (another reason why it would be a Big Deal).
  • All colors, all the time, with no limitations. Bayer sensors are one color all of the time. Hasselblad (and soon Olympus) introduced a moving Bayer variation that’s all colors some of the time. Foveon sensors are all colors all of the time, with limitations. We’re nibbling away at what we really want, which is perfect color information at all capture positions (and combine with the first two bullets, above, please ;~). 
  • Programmability. Let’s face it, cameras are computers. Whether we get programmability of our cameras through dedicated Apps made by developers or we write programs/scripts ourselves, we want to control what the camera does. Why is it we can only bracket a few things, and only one at a time? 
  • Modern integration. Cameras are still standalone devices that produce a file that you then move over to other devices before you do what you really want to do with them. Why? And why is the “move” process so manual and so constraining? Well, DCF standards, for one. Standards that were written before tablets, smartphones, and the Internet (at least most public use of it), and more. Standards written when DOS was still an acceptable OS. 


What I want are Big Deals. What I’ll have to accept until something changes are lots of Small Deals. That’s okay. I’ve been in technology long enough to know that the Big Deals are fewer and far between. Still, when did we last have a truly Big Deal in cameras? It’s time we had another one.

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