For a time, it looked like some sense had been talked into the camera manufacturers.
The megapixel wars, which had camera makers advertising ever-increasing photo resolutions, were at least in a state of cease fire, if not outright truce or peace. The fanciest cameras topped out around 16 megapixels, and more attention was being paid to the lenses that collected the light and the internal sensors that recorded it.
Like in the megahertz wars before, consumers had become convinced that a higher number on a single spec made a whole product better. PC makers stopped out of necessity; they just couldn’t wring more than about 4GHz out of a processor, so they turned to multi-core and 64-bit solutions. Camera sensors, meanwhile, were getting so small that individual pixels couldn’t record light properly, leading to the counterintuitive result that a picture with more megapixels actually looked worse than one with fewer.
Now manufacturing and software interpolation is catching back up with the marketing hype of years past. The 8-megapixel sensor in the iPhone 4S is so good that it has some folks wondering if they even need a separate camera. The rest of the world isn’t so eager to cede yet another entire industry to Apple, so they’re selling you more and more megapixels.
• Nikon D800/D800E, 36.3 megapixels: Just released, this DSLR’s sensor records 50 percent more pixels than Nikon’s next model down, or the closest competition from arch-rival Canon. That difference of 12 megapixels is the same resolution as many perfectly good point-and-shoot cameras.
Nikon certainly thinks its camera is better than the iPhone, and for any shooting condition that’s not perfect, it’s right. DSLR lenses can accommodate low light much better and capture several shots per second. Since the sensor is larger than even some previous Nikon DSLR sensors, the quality of each pixel is improved as well. At full resolution, you could crop to a small area of the photo and retain very good quality or blow up the whole frame to a very large print.
• Sigma SD1, 46 megapixels: Is this where it starts getting ridiculous? Sigma is best known for making surprisingly cheap, surprisingly good lenses for other brands’ cameras. With its own crazy-high-resolution camera body, you have to buy its lenses. It’s a tricky proposition, since most pro photographers are religiously devoted to their brand of choice, but leapfrogging everyone in resolution is a good way to encourage converts.
Sigma’s sensors also work a bit differently, with separate blue, green, and red layers. In theory, this helps more accurately reproduce colors. According to Sigma, anyway.
• Nokia PureView 808, 41 megapixels: Yes, Nokia means it’s a phone. And a weird phone it is. The bit with the camera is nearly three-quarters of an inch thick, twice as thick as many current smartphones. The default mode combines seven pixels into one for really nice 5-megapixel photos, though you can set it to capture pics up to 38 megapixels.
It also runs Nokia’s Symbian operating system, which is perfectly capable of running downloaded apps and everything else a smartphone can do, but carriers, consumers, and app developers never took much of a shine to it. Oh, and it’s not available in North America. But the same sensor and PureView pixel-combining technology is supposed to show up in Windows Phone handsets later this year. Free with a two-year contract, I’m sure.
Words are worth 1/1000 of a picture at twitter.com/CitizenjaQ.