The Year of the God Camera

Two 6,000 dollar camera in two days, the Sony A1 and the Fujifilm GFX100s, rumours suggest that Canon will produce a new top of the line camera aimed at Sports and Wildlife.

Low end digital camera sales have fallen off a cliff with the rise of mobile phone leading to a race for differentiation at the top which takes three main forms, higher resolution sensors, larger sensors (medium format) and increasingly sophisticated video features. Until recently there have been clear trade offs. For example larger sensors require more signal processing and so video resolution might be limited (as with the A7s III). Intensive processing produces heat and 2019 was the year of the overheating cameras trying to process 8k, such as the Canon R5.

Nikon set a trend with the Nikon Z ii by including two processing chips, resolving many of the problems with the original Z. The Sony Alpha 1 includes two of the chips introduced with the A7 Siii the Bionz XR, and hence it can process 8K rather than just 4k. Little is known about the Bionz though it is believed to be an ARM design.

Increasingly modern cameras are computers with a camera body and sensor built around them. Early digital camera required little more than a digital signal processor to convert the analog signal from the sensor to the camera RAW and other formats needed for processing. Those formats have got increasingly sophisticated such as s-log for video and even with the Sony A1 digital intermediate formats in camera such as pro-res. Also cameras have to undertake a series of strenuous real time processing task such as auto focus, auto exposure, in body stabilization and EVF previews. All with an operating system that needs to be instantly on. Hence the reason that 2020 will be the year of the god camera, where fewer and fewer trade offs have to be made is that camera firms are increasing throwing computer power at them.

The reasons of course that this is possible is increasingly low power high performance RISC system on chips chips from the likes of ARM and its licensees such as Apple with its powerful M1 chips which puts most desktop pcs to shame. These arnt just CPUs but include custom silicon, in the case of cameras digital signal processors.

Camera nerds are gear obsessives, but rarely obsess on the stats of the chips used. However it is the chips that differentiate cameras now in that almost all top cameras use Samsung sensors.

We are beginning to see AI features in cameras and so called computational photography, such as detecting depth, at first in smartphones but 2022 should see major inroads in this field.

The trends raise a number of issues however. Little on modern cameras wear out in normal use. This year may even see electronic shutters replacing mechanical shutters. Should then you be able to replace the camera ‘motherboard’ each year as SOCs with far better performance per watt come along. The camera industry however relies on planned obsolescence.