Digital Photography: Where do we go from here?

A little over a decade ago, I wrote an article in my Fall 2007 Newsletter, entitled Digital Photography: Where do we go from here?, which discussed improvements I was hoping for in upcoming camera announcements. To be sure, there have been some incredible advancements in both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras over the last decade. Owning two Nikon D850 camera bodies and a Hasselblad H5D 50 MP camera, I love having a high-megapixel camera but megapixels aren’t everything. Much of what I listed in that original article has still not yet come to fruition, so I thought I would update it here in this blog post. Who knows, perhaps Nikon, Canon and other camera manufacturers will see this and take note.

Built-in Sensor Cleaning that works!

One of the major frustrations I have had with digital cameras is sensor cleaning. As a pro, I clean my sensors regularly. Usually, before every assignment, I clean all of my camera sensors. Clean sensors really helps to make the post-processing easier since I don’t have to spot my images that often. With DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, the sensor is down in a well below the lens mount. This makes it hard to access and also complicates the cleaning process. In this day and age, when cameras can do everything but cook your lunch, it seems ridiculous to me that the camera manufacturers have not come up with a way to push a button and clean your sensor 100% perfectly. All they would have to do is put a mini-windsheil wiper in there and a nozzle that secretes a little cleaning liquid. Bam, then you can keep your sensor clean all the time. Sure, we might have to get the liquid replaced from time to time but that would be a 1,000-times better than trying to clean it ourselves.

I have had some epics when it comes to cleaning sensors. Years ago, I was cleaning my Nikon D800 the day before I was supposed to leave for an assignment, and I accidentally dragged out some oil from the edge of the sensor. (I think Nikon put that there intentionally as I wasn’t the only one to go through this headache.) I cleaned the sensor 20-plus times trying to get the oil off the sensor and even used a solution specifically designed to get oil off the sensor. Nothing worked. I went through $250 in sensor cleaning supplies. In the end, completely frustrated, I sent the D800 back to Nikon to have the sensor cleaned and took my older Nikon D4 on the assignment without a backup camera. When I got the D800 back from Nikon, the oil was gone, but there were still dust spots on the sensor so I had to clean it again.

I am putting this issue first in this list of items as it is the biggest headache and one the camera companies can easily fix. Some cameras have a “sensor cleaning” feature built in but these are all worthless. Most just vibrate the sensor to “shake” the dust off. I have never really seen this clean anything. Anyone who has cleaned sensors knows that if you don’t clean them regularly then the dust gets hardened onto the sensor and the only way to get it off is with a wet cleaning. I have been using the Sensor Gel Stick for the last four years or more, which works better than anything else I have tried, but still, we just shouldn’t have to clean our sensors manually. If any camera company offered a real built-in sensor cleaning option that worked I would switch to that camera brand immediately. Camera companies take note!

As a side note, my Hasselblad H5D is ridiculously easy to clean mostly because the sensor is super easy to access. Just take the digital back off and blow off the dust with a can of compressed air. If it needs a wet cleaning, simply wipe it down with an e-wipe. If that thing had decent autofocus and could shoot 10 fps, I would ditch DSLRs all together just because of the ease of cleaning the sensor.

Accurate Histograms

This is another of those head scratcher issues. Why when we have DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that can shoot 46 MP images at 9 or 10 fps can’t we get accurate histogram readouts on the back of the camera? You may not be aware, but the histogram on the back of your DSLR is built off the jpeg image, not the full raw image file. If I choose to shoot raw images in the wider Adobe RGB color space, then we should get a full and accurate histogram for the raw image file. As it is, I have to compare the histograms on the camera to those rendered by Photoshop (for the same image) to see how they compare. Based off that I have to guess as to what is blown out or not when shooting out in the field. This is insane. How hard is it to render an accurate histogram and show that on the back of the camera?

Higher Bit Depth

Bit depth is not widely understood. Bit depth is calculated with by using the following equation: 2ª, where the letter “a” equals the bit depth number. For instance, when a=12, the number of possible colors per channel is 4,096. Luckily we have graduated from 12-bit up to 14-bit sensors on most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Greater bit depth equals smoother transitions in colors, especially when looking at skies where the sun is in the frame. Higher bit depth also means better transitions in skin tones for portraits. All things being equal, a higher bit depth equates to better image quality, though the resulting image files will also be significantly larger. Some medium format cameras use a 16-bit image file format, and the image quality is remarkable. At this time, no DSLR or mirrorless cameras use 16-bit processing in-camera. I am sure it is possible, but we just haven’t seen it yet.

A 14-bit sensor can record up to 16,384 colors per channel. A 16-bit sensor can record up to 65,536 colors per channel. All that math means a 16-bit sensor can capture four times as many colors (per channel) as a 14-bit sensor. That is a huge difference. In terms of the final image, a 16-bit sensor shows many more subtle tones than an image captured with a 14-bit sensor. It is about time that the big three (Canon, Nikon and Sony) come out with high MP cameras that have 16-bit pipelines for raw images. The Hasselblad H6D 100c, shown above, and the Phase One XF (with the 100 MP digital back), are to my knowledge the only cameras currently with a full 16-bit processing pipeline in-camera.

Wider Dynamic Range

The major camera companies have come a long ways when it comes to dynamic range. Nikon and Sony in particular have really pushed the dynamic range of their cameras in recent years. My Nikon D850 is state of the art in that respect for DSLRs and it has changed the way I shoot. I now concentrate on protecting highlights and let everything else fall into shadow knowing that I can pull up those shadows and balance out the final image in post with almost no noise penalties. My Hasselblad H5D is even better and the H6D 100c is even one-step better than that. So, the camera companies are definitely making progress on this front. I just hope they continue to push the dynamic range of future cameras further.

Our eyes can see about 24-stops of light. My Nikon D850 can render nearly 15 stops after the image is processed. Hence, we have a ways to go. Some Red Digital Cinema cameras have the ability to capture 18 stops of light so the technology for greater dynamic range is out there, it just hasn’t been implemented in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras yet. Many photographers are pretty happy about the current dynamic range built into their camera, and it is massively better now than it was with film or early digital cameras, but in this case more is always better.

Better Lenses

With a never ending stream of higher megapixel cameras coming out, it is becoming obvious that the limiting factor, other than camera handling, is the lenses. When the D800 came out, it was obvious that the best lenses were required. With the 46 MP D850, I am starting to see optical weaknesses in my otherwise top-of-the-line Nikkor lenses. This is not to say that the Nikon lenses are bad, they are incredible, but they weren’t built for 100 MP cameras. If camera companies want to push the envelope in regards to megapixels, then we are going to need to see Zeiss Otus style lenses across the board. This might explain why Sony has developed some incredibly sharp lenses for their lineup of mirrorless cameras.

On this topic, in addition to higher quality lenses, all future high MP cameras will have to have in-body stabilization or that high MP count will be pretty much worthless. Camera handling becomes a limiting factor above 50 MP with any camera and counteracting camera shake from handholding a camera will be a huge issue. With my Nikon D850, even at higher shutter speeds like 1/2,000th second, I am seeing camera shake creating blurry images every once in a while.

Mirrorless Camera Bodies that are better ergonomically

Thus far, I have not committed to any mirrorless cameras. I just have not found one that ticks all the boxes I need it to. For now, my DSLRs have been the best option for me. Part of the issue I have with mirrorless cameras is their size and the ergonomics. I would love to have a smaller, lighter camera than my current DSLRs. My back would love it if I had a much lighter camera bag. But, so far, there are only a few mirrorless cameras that have decent ergonomics. This is obviously a very individual topic that depends on your hand size and preferences. Having rather large hands, the little Sony and Fuji mirrorless cameras don’t fit my hands well. They are so small that I find them hard to hold onto.

By contrast, the Hasselblad X1D, is one of the most incredible cameras ergonomically that I have ever held. If the X2D removes the shutter lag, I will be trading in my Hasselblad H5D for the updated version of the X1D. The grip on the X1D obviously went through some serious design experimentation. When you hold it, it just fits (at least my hands) incredibly well. The overall design of the camera is also pretty marvelous. In contrast, the Fuji GFX looks and handles like a Frankenstein camera.

My Nikon D850 has an amazingly well-sculpted grip. I have yet to see any mirrorless camera with a grip that is as good as my D850 or as good as any pro-caliber DSLR. Perhaps this is why mirrorless cameras seem to be getting larger and larger. The Leica SL is a stellar camera but the grip on it is rounded and hard to hold onto unless you have an after-market thumb catch mounted on the back of the camera. Here’s hoping that Nikon and Canon, when they release their full-frame mirrorless cameras later this year, come out with a mirrorless camera with decent ergonomics – as they are known to do with their DSLRs.

These are just a few of the things I think about when working with my current cameras. This is a small list. I have to keep reminding myself that every great image in history was created with a far inferior camera than those I am using today. Modern cameras are magical. The fact that we can create an image off a piece of silicon in itself is pure magic.


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