Olympus: 12 megapixels is enough

Olympus: 12 megapixels is enough

Summary: Olympus says that megapixels have hit the wall for most consumers and will instead focus on other characteristics such as auto focus and low-light shooting for its digital cameras.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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LAS VEGAS--Olympus has declared an end to the megapixel race.

"Twelve megapixels is, I think, enough for covering most applications most customers need," said Akira Watanabe, manager of Olympus Imaging's SLR planning department, in an interview here at the Photo Marketing Association (PMA). "We have no intention to compete in the megapixel wars for E-System," Olympus' line of SLR cameras, he said.

Instead, Olympus will focus on other characteristics such as dynamic range, color reproduction, and a better ISO range for low-light shooting, he said.

Increasing the number of megapixels on cameras is an easy selling point for camera makers, in part because it's a simple concept for people to understand. Even though having more megapixels can enable larger prints and enlargement of subject matter through cropping, adding megapixels comes with some drawbacks.

For one thing, smaller pixels can mean more noisy speckles at the pixel level and can reduce the dynamic range, so brighter areas wash out and darker areas become swaths of black. For another, images take more room on memory cards, hard drives, and Web servers, and cameras need more powerful image processors to handle them. And yesteryear's cameras already had plenty of pixels for making 8x10-inch prints, a size few people exceed.

Camera and sensor makers have been steadily improving digital cameras to compensate for the drawbacks, though. The space on the sensor that's devoted to electronics rather than light gathering has been reduced. Other improvements have come with the tiny microlenses that help each sensor's pixel to gather more light and with the color filters that determine whether a pixel records red, green, or blue.

Some still need more megapixels
Olympus' view is focused chiefly on mainstream photographers. Studio and commercial photographers taking pictures for magazines certainly have a need for more megapixels, Watanabe said.

"We don't think 20 megapixels is necessary for everybody. If a customer wants more than 12 megapixels, he should go to the full-frame models," Watanabe said.

The sensors in Olympus' SLRs, an element of the Four Thirds camera system also used by Panasonic, are smaller than those in mainstream SLRs from market leaders Canon and Nikon and much smaller than those in full-frame cameras. Those employ sensors the size of a frame of 35mm film, 36x24mm.

The 12-megapixel view isn't a new one at Olympus.

"I personally believed, before starting the E-System, that 12 was enough," Watanabe said. "We interviewed many professional photographers, people in studios, about how many they needed in the future. Before we started, the system, we had a rough idea we'd be at a plateau at 12 megapixels. We gradually increased the pixel count," with the newer Olympus SLRs now reaching that level.

Autofocus future
Watanabe had another bold projection: autofocus will change dramatically in SLRs.

Today's SLRs use a "phase detect" autofocus subsystem in which some light is diverted from the viewfinder to sensors in the bottom of the camera. These sensors enable the rapid autofocus that helps make SLRs much more responsive than compact cameras, which use a "contrast detect" method that analyzes the data from the image sensor itself.

Watanabe, though, believes image sensor-based autofocus soon will outperform phase-detect systems. That's important not just for compact cameras, but also for SLRs that today often have an awkward problem with composing a shot using the camera's LCD: when the sensor is in use to run the display, the phase-detect autofocus subsystem can't be used. That means live view on SLRs today is typically a frustratingly slow process.

"In terms of speed, phase detect is faster. But imager autofocus will soon exceed phase detect," Watanabe said.

And speed isn't of course the only factor. "In terms of accuracy, imager-based autofocus is much more advantageous. It directly focuses on the surface itself," the exact location where the image will eventually be recorded. "Phase detect focuses not on the real surface but on a virtual surface," the focusing subsystem reached via a moving mirror.

Imager-based autofocus doesn't require the full use of the image sensor area, so it doesn't directly increase power consumption concerns, he said. In Olympus's new midrange E-30 SLR, for example, autofocus uses only a few points on the sensor when autofocusing in live view mode.

This article was originally posted on CNET News.

Topic: Hardware

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65 comments
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  • I agree

    What is the point of 12 Megapixels if your color sucks. That and the fact that I own a 12 Megapixel camera, and the best thing it does is consume my laptop space.

    While I don't take very many pictures, I am quickly catching up with my Japanese friends who photograph every public opportunity.

    nucrash
  • RE: Olympus: 12 megapixels is enough

    Nikon will rule the camera world because of this.
    No More Microsoft Software Ever!
    • I agree, but am not optimistic

      I've said for a while that for the vast majority of users, anything north of 8 megapixels is overkill. 90% of my friends' photos end up on Flikr/Photobucket/Myspace/Facebook, where they're squashed down to 2 heavily-compressed megapixels anyway. Lighting and sensor compensation for sub-optimal lighting has always produced better results, and I hope that Olympus sticks to their guns about holding the line at 12MP.

      The problem is that companies like to make money. And in the words of George Carlin: "Remember how dumb the average person is...and realize that half are dumber than that". If every camera on the Olympus shelf is 12MP, and Canon/Nikon/Sony/Fuji/Kodak release a 13MP camera, people will end up getting that instead, thinking that it's a better camera. Once 12MP becomes the bottom of the MP barrel, you can bet that Olympus will release a 15MP camera to stay competitive.

      Behold, the downside of capitalism: what sells is not always what's best, and what's best rarely sells.

      Joey
      voyager529
      • How little you know about "good old" 35mm film

        35mm film produces a negative that has more resolution than the current 24 megapixel cameras.

        Sure people who dump photos on some lame web album are not going to need anything above 5 megapixels. However, photo enthusiasts - amateur and professional - appreciate the new DSLR's that produce the same results that an old film SLR could produce. That includes the new full frame sensors.

        Many hobbyists(i.e. those who do not get paid to take pictures) dream of the day when they can purchase a full frame DSLR with 24+ megapixels for around $500 instead of the current prices of $3000.

        Olympus will fall behind the big players if they plan to stick with these caps on megapixels and sensor sizes.
        Unix Pimp
        • My point exactly.

          I thought the photo world was REQUIRED to move from film to digital. Without 72 Mega Pixels the digital photo world is dead.

          Again, 72MP is NOT for everyday use, but for professional use (i.e. poster size prints, etc.)
          No More Microsoft Software Ever!
        • You're right, I've never shot "real photos" on 35mm

          ...but you miss the concept of a "workflow".

          People who want 35mm quality and won't settle for less are still using 35mm.

          People who need 24MP have (or will purchase) a $3,000 full-frame model.

          People who want 24MP but can't afford a full-frame will probably jump ship to Canon or Nikon.

          If it's really such a bad decision for Olympus, you'll see >12MP non-full-frame SLRs come down the assembly line.

          This is a textbook case of supply and demand and has very little to do with 35mm vs. full frame vs. 12MP.

          Joey
          voyager529
        • How little you know about film.

          You need to add the little caveat of black and white film to your entire
          discussion. The color films did not record 24MP with any usable MTF
          from a print stand-point. That basically means that in a print, a 20+ MP
          35mm camera will far outstrip a 35mm color print at the same print size.
          Bruizer
          • slide film

            Actually serious professionals don't waste their time with print film either. They stick with slide films - positives - as the color saturation and grain size are ideal for super-sized images or better yet those amazing national geographics photos that every amatuer aims for with their cheap but nearly useless digital cameras.

            My 1953 vintage Kodak retina II-A with Zeiss lense still smokes DLRs every day. I just love it when people with their high-zoot DLR ask me what I shot some of my travel photos with and I gladly tell them Kodachrome 64 and my trusty Retina.
            jpouchet
          • Who said anything about negative print film?

            I simply said prints and anyone that knows anything about photography
            knows that the end result for ANY film is print. You may have the odd
            slide show but those are actually very rare. Pros take photographs for
            print. This includes magazine reproduction, fine art, galleries and
            advertising copy.

            I laugh at people stuck in the dark ages and think 35mm K64 with Zeiss
            glass will trump the current 21+ MP cameras from Nikon, Canon and
            Sony. The long discontinued K24 may have been close but only in some
            areas. In color reproduction, MTF and DR, the current 35mm FX digital
            far smokes your sad little Zeiss glass on 35mm film.
            Bruizer
          • Digital here to stay

            Yes, and it was K25 (Kodachrome ASA 25), I shot 200 rolls of it in Alaska and love the stuff. You pretty much need tripod even in daylight.

            Even a small sensor Nikon D200 can surpass all 35mm films except maybe K25.
            mggordon
          • My first instinct was right then.

            I thought it was K25 and then corrected my thinking to K24 (yes I know,
            Google is your friend). I used to shoot K25 years and years ago doing it
            hand-held was next to impossible. The results if you got your DR
            correct, however, really was stunning. Same can be said of Velvia 50 and
            even ES.

            The new crop of cameras like the 5D Mk II, D3x, 1Ds Mk II and A900
            really do put an end to film. With the exception of B&W that has its own
            unique look and detail, digital has fully come of age.
            Bruizer
          • Kodachrome R.I.P.

            Unfortunately, Kodachrome has been earmarked for extinction by the end of this year:

            <http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-kodachrome23-2009jun23,0,5125640.story>

            raelalt
          • never heard of Kodachrome? (nt)

            vv
            What the ...!
          • Show me where to get K24?

            oh wait, you can't and K64 never came close to 20+MP with decent MTF.

            -edit: updated 25 to 24.
            Bruizer
          • Fujichrome 50D

            You either like Kodachrome or Fujichrome depending on what kind of
            color you like, but for me, Fujichrome had tight grain and brilliant colors
            and was a standard E-6 process. Kodak made Ektachrome (probably
            where the "E" in "E-6" came from), but it paled in comparison to
            Kodachrome, so if you were going to shoot Kodak, you simply shot
            Kodachrome. With 50D you could shoot daylight hand held up to about
            100mm or as I learned taking clandestine photographs in China, you
            could find a solid structure against which to brace yourself and become a
            human tripod.
            Geotopia
          • E-6 Process

            Why the E-6 was important is that it didn't need dyes - the dyes were in
            the film and so you could process the film with just chemicals and that
            meant I could do it in the bathroom of my hotel or like in "Killing Fields"
            it could be done at the embassy with no power. Kodachrome only had 2
            labs in the US and one in all of Asia/Japan.
            Geotopia
          • I was talking about 12 MP APS-C sensors

            Olympus thinks their 12 MP APS-C sensors will fit the bill for professionals and hard core hobbyists.

            Wrong.

            I did not even touch on the subject of focal length conversion factors on these APS-C format DSLRs.

            Sure the newer 24+ MP full frame cameras will eventually smoke the old 35 mm film cameras.

            However, I still own ancient Minolta film cameras that can take better low light pictures than most of the new DSLRs. Especially the Sony DSLRs, which have a harder time in low light than the Nikons.
            Unix Pimp
          • No you weren't

            [i]"35mm film produces a negative that has more resolution than the
            current 24 megapixel cameras."[/i]

            You entire post is about FF/FX cameras in the 20+ MP range since
            there are no APS-C cameras in that MP range.

            [i]Sure the newer 24+ MP full frame cameras will eventually smoke
            the old 35 mm film cameras.[/i]

            The 5+ year old 1Ds did that almost half a decade ago. Eventually
            happened while you were sleeping.

            [i]However, I still own ancient Minolta film cameras that can take
            better low light pictures than most of the new DSLRs. Especially the
            Sony DSLRs, which have a harder time in low light than the Nikons.[/i]

            Not even close. And has not been true for 4-5 years in the Canon
            world. ISO 3200 on a 4 year old 5D outdoes ISO 100 on your 35mm
            film camera.
            Bruizer
          • who said 12 MP for pros?

            The article wasn't talking about professional photographers and hard core hobbyists, but the majority of users.
            kevinrs1
          • Exactly

            Sometimes I wonder how many people just read the title of the article and then jump down to the comments.
            Etch44