In all the excitement about smaller batteries and carbon-fibre effect hand grips, you may have missed the key message of the recent batch of camera announcements – that DSLR technology has reached a significant stage of maturity. The recently launched Olympus E-450 was without question the most subtle modification of an existing model we’ve ever seen and the new Sonys, with their revised styling and reworked user interfaces unquestionably have an awful lot in common with the preceding models.
The ‘Welcome to your first DSLR, don’t worry, it’s not so unlike your old compact camera’ message that all entry level DSLRs are designed to give off is being made even more explicit but, in technology terms, they don't represent a big change. And this is not something we’ve seen quite so starkly before – in the past existing technologies have worked their way down to cheaper models but rarely have they survived, essentially intact, from one generation of camera to the next.
Sony has a reputation for being as astute at marketing as it is at product design (and there are few companies that do both well). At launch, it seemed strange that Sony would offer the A200, 300 and 350 in a market segment that most manufacturers were addressing with a single model. However, since then, most manufacturers have reacted and introduced smaller, cheaper, easier-to-use models and the cameras that would have once been considered entry-level no longer sit at the bottom of the product range. This and Sony’s impressive market penetration suggest that it got something right.
So, let’s assume that Sony’s latest move is similarly shrewd and look back at the latest generation of DSLRs in this light - you’ll notice that the big changes in most manufacturer’s ranges are being made on the marketing side, rather than engineering. Which isn’t a criticism – a good product is a careful balance of clever technology and intelligent marketing so that the customer gets all the technology they want in a form they can use and at a price they’re willing to pay. The result of this mature market is that there is a greater choice of good DSLRs than there has ever been – no matter what your needs or your budget, it’s never been easier to find a camera that does what you want. But it may be worth getting used to the idea that it’s likely to be increasingly uncommon for a new model to offer more than a new screen, a different sensor and a tweaking of the user-interface.
Not that there aren’t still areas of technology that could (and almost certainly will) be improved. Live view, for instance, is still very much in its infancy and, on DSLRs, still looks a solution that needs to decide what problem it’s trying to solve. There are essentially two camps at present: the manufacturers whose live view systems allow fine focussing (for studio and macro work, for instance), and the manufacturers whose systems concentrate on offering a fast, compact-camera-like experience.
The fine-focus systems may now offer contrast-detection AF (and even Face Detection), but they’re all still far too slow to use in the way you’d use a compact camera. Sony’s fast-focus system offers exactly this sort of seamless use but is less than ideal for fine focus work and in its current form has knock-on effects on the rest of the camera’s operation. It’s interesting to note that Olympus, the first manufacturer to include live view on a DSLR, had to use two different solutions to try to provide both capabilities.
The one camera we’ve seen so far that manages to simultaneously offer compact-like performance and fine focusing is not, technically a DSLR. The Panasonic G1 may have the interchangeable lenses of a DSLR but its underlying design is essentially that of a compact camera – everything it does is live view. More importantly the entire system, including lenses, has been designed specifically for fast contrast-detection autofocus, rather than having to coax old designs to perform tricks they were never intended to do. With launches expected from both Olympus and Samsung, it’ll be these mirrorless interchangeable lens systems that are likely to be breaking new ground.
|Mirrorless cameras aren't going to consign DSLRs to the scrapheap just yet|
I'm not saying that technology isn't going to continue to move on (even if you don't say it, it's a famously easy way to make yourself look ridiculous) - a new sensor technology may emerge tomorrow that will revolutionise digital photography. Instead I'm saying that, in the short term, the great leaps forwards (and, I suspect, the entertaining pratfalls), seem more likely to occur in the sandpit of the mirrorless camera rather than the comfy armchair of the conventional DSLR.