Megapixel race. There’s been a lot of thoughtful dialogue lately about reduced emphasis on sensor pixel count as a singular criterion for choosing one camera or system over another (see Thom Hogan’s Jan. 24 commentary here). Not that “megapixels” has suddenly become a forgotten specification…after all, marketing departments need something to laud in order to sell more product. But the combination of vastly improved sensors/internal electronics with a significantly altered image consumption market has created a very different environment from just a couple of years ago.
Note the exploding interest in the Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) format. For years the majority of vocal pundits have been begging for and lauding larger sensors; now suddenly a somewhat smaller sensor (m4/3 has a 2x crop factor) is all the rage. No doubt part of this outburst of enthusiasm springs from sheer convenience. All of us get tired of lugging around scores of pounds of bulky equipment. When you can slip a Panasonic GH2 with three very good lenses covering 7mm to 300mm (a 35mm equivalent of 14-600mm) in an original Domke F-2 canvas shoulder bag and still have room for a little extra, it becomes pretty enticing, especially when the image quality capability is just fine for about 95% of what most people shoot.
And there’s a place for the smaller m4/3 bodies too (the ones without the electronic viewfinder where the prism used to be, like the GH2). Kirk Tuck has an excellent review of the Olympus E-PL2 on his blog. It’s interesting too that more and more serious photographers are doing all they can to avoid looking like serious photographers as more often than not now doors tend to close rather than open when you’re perceived as a “pro.” All this reflects a maturing of the market and an even greater opportunity to choose tools crafted and scaled for your personal shooting objectives.
Medium format. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a small niche of manufacturers that continue to reach higher. For certain applications—when maximum image quality is absolutely required—medium format digital bodies and backs now reign supreme, and though these systems are stratospherically expensive (with the singular exception—relatively speaking—of the Pentax 645D), there are apparently enough potential buyers for companies like Phase One, Leaf, and Hasselblad to continue to push the science and develop improved offerings. At Photokina, Leaf announced the first 80 MP back, the Aptus II 12, and it is now shipping. Within the last two weeks, Phase One announced their new IQ180, also an 80 MP interchangeable back, and pre-production samples were rushed to the field. Initial “First Looks” and reviews are popping up all over the place (here, here, here, and here). If you have to ask, the Aptus II 12 goes for $31,995, and the IQ180 is $43,990 (that’s just the back…body and lenses extra).
More pixel peeping. For those who really enjoy parsing technical minutia (and I admit I slip into that category now and then), you’re probably aware of the sensor benchmarking service provided by DxO Labs. If this type of data appeals to you, there’s an excellent analysis on the Luminous-Landscape site of what the material is telling you. This information is certainly interesting and useful, but don’t let it suck up all your time and prevent you from actually making pictures.