"Who put eight mushy megapixels in that itty-bitty sensor?"
- Paraphrase of Stan Freberg's great ad for Contadina
I bought my Panasonic DMC-FZ5 about two years ago. It was a five-megapixel, state-of-the-art marvel. Tiny, slick, with a 12X zoom, optical image stabilization and, best of all, great image quality.
But boredom and new camera lust can set in over time. Where was that hot new camera that would turn me on? Longer zoom? Wider angle? Better macro or low-light capability? Or perhaps a better viewfinder to make new angles possible.
The one thing I really wasn't looking for was a lot more megapixels. Okay, well maybe one or two more than the FZ5 had, but only if they were real pixels, which would add more definition to a photo.
So I look and look and look and... nothing. Panasonic introduces new models, but they're either too big, or pretty much what I already have. Olympus launches a new super-(duper)-zoom, but it gets mediocre reviews. Fuji has some interesting models, but I don't think I'd see much difference in my work if I got one.
Then, boom! Sony announces two new cameras (DSC-H7, H9) that have everything (one has a little more everything than the other). So I, already owning a Sony camera am hot for this new one. I wait. Everyone waits. Finally a few people get one and start posting pictures on the Internet. Wow! Lots of close-ups and macros. Stunning! Birds, bees, bugs, beetles, and buds. No buildings yet, but what could be bad?
I'll take one with everything! (Spare battery, better charger, giant memory card, extended warrantee.) Almost $1000, but well worth if it can deliver better pictures.
It quickly becomes apparent that the image quality isn't quite what I was hoping for. So I exchange it for another and it's a little better, but not as sharp as my other four digital cameras, including my six year old Sony DSC-F707. So, in the end, return the Sony DSC-H9 The romance ends in divorce.
I'm seeing a lot of messages on the forums that say "At the end of the day..." image quality isn't the be-all, end-all that everyone makes it out to be. And, after all, what can you expect from an 8-megapixerl camera that costs less than $500?
What do I expect? The simplest way I can answer is that the new models should have image quality at least as good, or even better than the previous models, cameras from two years ago, in the same price range. That's not too much to expect, is it?
Remember these are cameras that we're talking about, and that the goal of the exercise it to produce images. Pictures. Things that can be printed big if you like it that way. What good is a gee-whiz 3-inch foldout viewfinder if the camera can't take pictures that are reasonably sharp at the sides and corners?
What's happened is that camera manufacturers have hit a wall. A wall that's of their own making. It's reminiscent of the horsepower race that car makers started back in the 1950s. Eventually, common sense took hold and cars got smaller, safer, and more economical.
I think that the wall for the smaller, compact super-zooms like my FZ5 and Sony's H9 is probably around 5 megapixels. After that, things get a lot worse, and every possible image quality problem that can plague a digital camera rears its ugly head. In spades. Camera makers throw in a lot of image-processing band-aids that create new problems. The new Sony DSC-H9 shows what happens when features and press releases become more important than image quality. And the other manufacturers aren't far behind. It's just that Sony got there first.
Let's take a closer look. The Panasonic DMC-FZ5 has a 12X zoom lens, 5 megapixels, and pretty good image quality. The later models of this camera, with more megapixels don't show much if an improvement, except at the level of the press release. If you increase the megapixels from 5 to 8, that's a 60% increase. You should see a lot more detail for that amount of increase, but the chances are that you'll actually see less.
There is another problem, one I haven't seen mentioned. If you increase the number of pixels in the sensor without increasing its size, you may exceed the resolution of the camera's lens. The resolution of the modern digital camera lenses is already far higher than the older 35mm lenses for film cameras. They have to be, given that cameras like the DSC-H9 and DMC-FZ5 have a sensor about one-sixth the area of a regular 35mm frame.
A lens is at its sharpest in the center. Here, there may be enough resolution for the increased pixel count. But, as you move towards the edges and corners, the resolution decreases. It may still be fine with fewer megapixels, but as more megapixels are jammed it, the resolution can't keep up and the result is smearing and unsharpness where there should be lots of detail.
What a waste. This needless bumping up of image size is just "empty, megapixels," like the "empty calories" in junk food. An addition that adds nothing, and may actually make things worse.
Assuming you really need more megapixels, what can be done to add them without killing the image quality? Unfortunately, not much. Until someone invents a new type of image sensor.
If you want more megapixels today, and you want to preserve image quality, you're going to need a larger image sensor. This larger sensor will require a physically larger lens. For an 8 megapixel camera, with good image quality, you'd need a camera about the size of the Panasonic DMC-FZ50, which puts you in a whole different league, size-wise.
So what should the makers of compact super-zooms do? Start by making image quality the first thing on the press release and, when you've got that right, then think about adding new features. Go back to five or six megapixels. You'll still sell cameras, especially if they take great pictures. As for the new features, I like the idea of the big viewfinder. I also like the idea of a wider angle lens, as long as it's sharp. And who knows what else they'll dream up.
But remember, as Canon used to say in their ads, "Image is everything."