The Feature Trap


With Photokina in flight visions of cameras, lenses and tripods dance through my head. So many new features: more pixels, bigger sensors, faster lenses, face recognition, video, higher ISO, faster processors. But which ones really matter?

But this onslaught of new features won’t stop. Over the next few years we can expect even more technology-driven improvements. On-board HDR is one frequently mentioned.

This begs the question: Can an investment in camera equipment last 5-10 years or do you accept an update every 2 years? If the former then one can justify spending more on equipment assuming its useful life will be extended.

In a recent TWIP poll 75% of respondents’ primary equipment was less than 2 years old. Seems like most go for the latter.

An assessment of these new features suggest they address a few basic issues:

  • Skills compensation
    These are features that compensate for a lack of skills as a photographer. Face recognition, for example compensates for an inability to focus the lens. Scenes compensates for not knowing how to configure the appropriate settings given a specific scenario.


  • Photo-capture improvement
    These are features directly related to improved picture quality. Number of pixels, sensor size would be examples here.


  • Usability
    These are the features that make the camera easier to use, feel good in the hand. For example, easily read menus, accessibility of frequently used capabilities, responsiveness, size and weight.

However there is a point of view that says the addition of all these features just makes the camera a lot more complicated and many of them should not really be part of the camera anyways; they should be part of post-processing. Following this line of reasoning positions the responsibilities of a camera to capturing images as best it can, and nothing more.

So, stripping away all the features, you buy a good camera body with good lenses and offload all the processing to a post-production tool, such Aperture. Those “Skills Compensation features” can be resolved through training; “Usability features” should for the most part be available today, and while technology can play a role, it’s not necessarily on a continuous progression of getting better. The only caveat here is that some disruptive change will occur, which there is an argument that the new micro four thirds format could be. That leaves “Photo-capture Improvement features.” Three things that influence the quality of the picture taken are:

  1. Sensor
    Sensors will improve: more pixels, better dynamic range can be assumed, higher ISO. So the question is can one find a camera that will meet current needs in terms of resolution, dynamic range, etc. that will carry through the next 5-0 years?
  2. Lens
    For cameras that support interchangeable lenses this is not a concern. Assuming the camera body continues to be supported then lenses will be available over the long term.
  3. Software
    Software too will progress. While most cameras these days support firmware upgrades, the question is how long can the underlying microprocessor survive. Think of you desktop computer and how long it lasts.

So of these three the biggest exposure seems to be related to the sensor. That only becomes an issue if the photographer’s requirements change and cannot be met or current equipment does not meet current requirements. If one is in the latter situation then it makes no sense to take a long-term view; wait until the current requirements can be met before making the commitment.

If the former, then it’s time to pull out the abacus and do the comparative TCO.

The only nagging question is whether some disruptive change will come along that will change the whole game.


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