PMA Notebook: The new front line

Until recently, the decision of which digital camera to buy largely came down to just two factors: megapixels and price. Even as camera manufacturers argued that megapixels weren’t all that important—that optics played a larger role in getting a good-looking shot—they were racing against each other to get more megapixels in less expensive cameras.

But walking around this week’s Photo Marketing Association (PMA) convention in Orlando, Florida, it’s clear that the megapixel race has pretty much run its course. Even entry-level digital cameras typically capture 6-megapixels of information—more than enough high quality 8-by-10-inch prints. This has left camera companies looking for new ways to distinguish their cameras from the competitors’.

When looking for trends, it’s not always obvious which experiments will catch on and which will slowly fizzle away. For example, Nikon, Canon, and Kodak all offer cameras with built-in Wi-Fi support. But in its current incarnation, at least, the addition of wireless networking is still largely a novelty item for most digital camera owners. Similarly, a couple of companies, including Canon and Panasonic, are pushing the idea of capturing photos in the 16:9 format for viewing on wide-screen TVs and monitors. But most picture frames and borderless paper sizes don’t fit this format, which means extra cropping.

That said, here are three camera trends that seems to be here to stay:

Larger LCDs

One of my favorite trends is the move to larger and brighter LCD screens. I remember when a 2-inch display seemed downright luxurious. Now, almost every camera company is offering at least one compact model with a 3-inch LCD. And results are beautiful. Not only do the larger screens make examining images for flaws a bit easier, they also make sharing your newest photos with others much more enjoyable. Nikon’s Wi-Fi enabled, 6-megapixel CoolPix S6 ($450) even offers a slideshow mode that includes music (the camera comes with five songs; you can add three additional WAV files). The 3-inch LCD also features a wide viewing angle so everyone in the group can see the displayed photos without weird color shifts.

Of course, on compact cameras, the large screen can come at the expense of buttons and other external controls. Kodak’s 4-megapixel EasyShareOne ($500) and Pentax’s 6-megapixel Optio T10 ($350) address this problem by adding a touch-sensitive screen. This turns the LCD into your main navigation tool. The Wi-Fi enabled EasyShareOne even comes with its own stylus.

For a truly grand LCD screen, check out Samsung’s 8-megapixel Pro815 ($800). In addition to a 15x optical zoom, a high capacity battery, and advanced features, the camera features an impressive 3.5-inch display. There’s also an additional LCD screen on the top of the unit, which you can use as a digital viewfinder when shooting at an awkward angle.

Image stabilization

One problem common to almost all compact digital cameras, is poor low-light performance. In all but the brightest situations, it’s almost impossible to get a sharp image without using the flash or setting up a tripod. Some camera companies have addressed this problem by ramping up the camera’s ISO setting, which controls light sensitivity. But while this does help reduce the effects of camera shake, it can also result in more image noise.

A few cameras, on the other hand, approach the problem by including a moving lens element that tries to compensate for subtle camera motion. Canon’s 7-megapixel PowerShot SD700 IS Digital Elph ($500, available in April), for example, uses gyroscopic sensors to detect motion and correct for it. Pentax’s 8-megapixel Optio A10 ($350) includes a similar feature.

Panasonic’s Lumix line, including the 6-megapixel DMC-FX01K ($350), offers two modes of image stabilization. Mode 1 stays on all the time to make framing easier in bumpy situations. Mode 2 only springs to action once you press the shutter button, producing slightly better results and helping preserve battery power.

In-camera editing features

Perhaps as a result of larger screen sizes, many camera companies seem to be betting on the concept of using the camera as an image editor. Many cameras now give you the option of having the camera automatically correct problems such as red-eye and backlighting. This makes it easier to bypass the computer altogether and go straight to the printer—though you don’t get the same control that you would by spending a little extra time in iPhoto or Adobe Photoshop Elements. Other cameras are taking the concept even further by adding a host of image effects that can be applied from the camera.

For example, Hewlett Packard’s 8-megapixel Photosmart R927 ($399, available in April) includes an entire Design Gallery—a set of image effects including soft glows, center focusing, borders, color tints, and artistic stylizing. You can layer effects on top of one another and control how much of the effect is applied. Each change you make creates a new file on the camera. This prevents you for accidentally losing your original shot. But keep in mind, that each version takes up additional room on your media card.

Casio’s newest cameras, such as the 6-megapixel EX-Z600 ($300; available in April), include am Old Photo Best Shot mode, which is being pitched as an alternative to scanning your old photos. Instead you take a photo of the old print. The camera then attempts to restore the print automatically, reviving faded colors and correcting for angled shots. The crystal ball

With megapixels becoming less important, it’ll be interesting to see where future camera innovations take us. Is there a camera feature you’d like to see in future models? Or is there a trends that you’re hoping will die. Share it here.

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