Photokina 2008 Interview: Canon met up with one of Canon Inc's most high ranking executives, Director and Chief Executive of Image Communication Products Operations, Masaya Maeda, at Photokina for a wide-ranging conversation about current and future developments in compact and SLR digital cameras. Mr Maeda has been with Canon Inc since 1974 and is currently the head of the entire camera division, covering both DSC and the EOS DSLR system.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and to remove the many areas we covered that are, for the time being, 'off the record'.

Let's start with DSC and the announcement of the G10. We're seeing a lot of pent-up demand for a better quality compact, perhaps with lower megapixels / bigger pixels or bigger sensors. What our readers want to know - and what we want to know - is this; is there any chance of Canon making high-end compacts that don't have more pixels, but have better pixels, to fill the big gap between DSC and DSLR?

"The G10 is the flagship product of the PowerShot line and we're concentrating on getting a good balance between megapixel count and picture quality, and this is the outcome; the G10. We believe the users benefit from being able to trim or crop their pictures, and also to produce large prints, and most of these benefits we aim to provide by increasing megapixels. We cannot provide details of future products, however the G10 could be developed in a range of directions, such as models offering more sensitive ISO or more speed. At the moment this is one solution we could provide."

Which leads on to our next question. What benefits can we expect to see from the use of CMOS sensors in compact cameras?

"We believe the main one is speed; the potential for faster frames per second and the development of new powerful features for movie modes."

Is this (CMOS sensor compacts) something we're going to see more of in future models?

"There are pros and cons to both types of sensor (CCD and CMOS), so the choice will depend on the usage - which features are important for the camera. Each sensor - CCD or CMOS sensor - will be used in whatever way most benefits users."

So at the moment is there still an image quality disadvantage to CMOS in a small sensor?

"The signal which each pixel produces is different for CMOS and CCD, as is the noise current, so they are not directly comparable. The output is very different."

We ask because the standard set by EOS cameras using CMOS - in noise terms - is very high, and there's an expectation - realistic or not - that this will be reflected in compact cameras using CMOS sensors.

"It all depends on the sensor size and pixel size; the EOS 5D Mark II has a much larger pixel pitch than any compact, so obviously that makes a big difference. However, in the future, even the small pixels will, by improvements to the technology, offer better quality - though we cannot say when."

Do the compact camera systems use the same proprietary on-chip noise reduction systems as the EOS sensors?

"We cannot disclose details, but the PowerShot ranges of the future will enable such noise reduction systems. The big issue is that it takes time for such noise reduction to be performed, meaning that on a compact the fast shutter response (lag) would be sacrificed. We don't want to do this, as this would be a big disadvantage for the user, so we need to work out how to get the right balance between noise reduction and shutter release speed."

Now we have tiny compact camera sensors with over 14 million pixels are we getting to the point where resolution is being limited by the lens?

"Again we can"t go into detail but the lenses themselves are good enough; diffraction is beginning to be the limiting factor when closing down the aperture."

So our point is, why keep going? If you're already at the point where adding megapixels brings no benefits why do it? As a market leader could Canon not take a stand on this issue…

"To some extent I agree with you, which is why we're looking at the possibility of adding diversity to the G10, which would be the answer to those looking for something other than high megapixel count."

Moving on to SLRs, cameras such as the EOS 50D and 5D Mark II are stretching the capabilities of lenses harder than ever. What are your priorities for lens development?

"We are aware of course that a small number of lenses out of over 60 in the current lineup may not be good enough for cameras such as the 5D Mark II. Since I took total responsibility for all digital SLR and lenses my first mission is to ensure that all lenses are capable of matching the latest SLRs, and also to develop and deliver new technologies to improve further the quality of new lenses."

Are we likely to see EF-S - and APS-C cameras in general - moving to the entry level, with full frame moving towards the mid-range / EOS 40D/50D sector of the market? Is there any danger that EF-S will be pushed out of the market altogether long term?

'We don't think so; EF-S is perhaps more appealing to the younger market and female market, who appreciate the light weight. So EF-S is not going to be pushed out. At this moment we don't believe the 50D sector of the market will be going to full frame either, and we will continue to provide EF-S cameras and lenses to that segment."

Some professional users have expressed concern about the fact that the 5D Mark II offers the same resolution and a more modern processor than the EOS-1Ds Mark III, making the 1Ds Mark III seem a little dated. What are your thoughts on the relative positioning of the two products?

"That's a very good question. The 5D Mark II we're positioning as the very highest product in our high-end enthusiast range. The EOS 1Ds Mark III, by comparison, offers robust durability and long shutter life as the most important features for use in harsh studio conditions, we believe. However when it comes to image quality itself; because of the constant digital technology developments in this industry, it's always the latest camera that is best. So things like ISO expansion range and dynamic range are in a sense better in the 5D Mark II."

One of the most common complaints we've seen about the 5D Mark II is that it still has the same AF system as the original 5D. Why is this?

"Firstly the market's evaluation of the 5D's AF system has been very positive; there have been no complaints from users, with everyone saying it's very good. Given that, to a certain extent, we think we shouldn't change it. And also there's some limitation with size; the AF sensor in the 50D is very big; the one in the 5D is much smaller. If we wanted to have all cross-sensors in the 5D Mark II, it would mean we might have to sacrifice the compactness of the body. It's all a question of balance of features and benefits."

Would you ever consider removing the anti alias (low pass) filter - or using a lighter one - on high end, high resolution models such as the EOS 1Ds Mark III, to improve pixel level sharpness, removing any moiré in software (like medium format cameras)?

"We believe the potential for false color moiré effects would be a disadvantage for the customer, so no."

Currently the contrast-detect AF on Canon SLRs is very slow; given that video and live view are now part of the DSLR landscape are you planning to do anything to improve contrast detect AF?

"We are not satisfied with current AF performance with live view, and contrast detect AF should be able to be improved soon. Also you may know that HD camcorders have a hybrid AF system, which is one of the many options that we can choose from to be developed in the future. We don't think it will be necessary to change the firmware of the lens to improve contrast detect AF performance."

At the moment in live view on the EOS 50D you offer a silent shooting mode that uses an electronic 'first curtain', starting with the mechanical shutter open. Is it technically feasible to offer a fully silent mode that uses a totally electronic shutter - using the sensor alone to produce the exposure?

"In principle it's theoretically possible, however there are several technical issues to be overcome."

Will movie capture be working its way down into models further down the range? Is there a reason that the EOS 50D, for example, doesn't have video capture?

"We're now studying carefully which models will be offered with video functionality. The 50D successor will almost certainly offer this feature."

Are there any issues with the sensor 'heating up' when shooting extended movie clips?

"We don't have that problem with heating because power consumption is very low in our newly developed sensors. There is no impact on stills image quality even after shooting extensively in movie mode."

All the buzz at this year's Photokina has been around the concept of the 'mirrorless' interchangeable lens camera following the launch of Micro Four Thirds. Is this an area Canon is interested in?

"We welcome this move to activate general market expansion, and we think it's very positive. We're not just observing what's happening in the market with the developments recently announced by Panasonic and Olympus; where we see a new market we are also looking to participate. Regarding the compact market, though you mention it's not exciting, we will come with new exciting developments next year, so please wait and look forward to next year."

Interview conducted by Simon Joinson and Phil Askey, report by Simon Joinson