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Features for high-end digital cameras

I’m really enjoying my Canon EOS 5D Mark II, especially its ability to shoot at 3200 ISO without much noise, allowing it to be used indoors, handheld without flash. But as fine as this (and other high end) cameras are, I still see a raft of features missing that I hope will appear in future cameras.

Help me fix my mistakes

A high end camera has full manual settings, which is good. But even the best of us make mistakes with these settings, mistakes the camera should know about and warn us about. It should not stop us from making shots, or in many circumstances try to correct the mistakes. But it should notice them, and beep when I take a picture, and show the mistake on the display with menu options to correct it, to always correct it, or not not warn me again about it for a day or forever.

I write earlier about the general principle of noticing when we’ve left the camera in an odd mode. If we put the camera into incandescent white balance in the evening and then a day later the camera notice we’re shooting in a sunny environment, it should know and alert us, or even fix it. This is true of a variety of settings that are retained through a non-shooting period, including exposure compensation, white balance, shooting modes, ISO changes and many others. The camera should learn over time what our “normal” modes are that we do like to leave the camera in, and not warn us about them, but warn us about other unusual things.

Many things will be obvious to the camera. If I shoot in manual mode and then later take another shot in manual mode that’s obviously way overexposed or underexposed, I probably just forgot, and would not mind the reminder. The reminder might also offer to delete the bad shot.

There are many things the camera can detect, including big blobs of sensor dust. Lenses left in manual focus should be noticed after a long gap of time, and especially if the lens has been removed and returned to the camera. Again, this should not impinge on the UI much — just a beep and a chance to see what the problem was on the screen.

Add bluetooth and other communications protocols to the camera

Let the camera talk to other devices. One obvious method would be bluetooth. With that, let the camera use bluetooth microphones and headsets when it records video and annotations. Let me hear the camera’s beeps and audio in a bluetooth headset so as not to disturb others. Let the camera talk to a Bluetooth GPS or GPS equipped phone to get geolocation data for photos. Let the camera be controlled via bluetooth from a laptop, and let it upload photos to a computer as it currently can do over USB. Let me use my phone or any other bluetooth remote as a remote control for the camera — indeed, on a smart phone, let me go so far as to control all aspects of the camera and see the live preview. Start making bluetooth controlled flash modules to replace the infrared protocols — it’s more reliable and won’t trigger other people’s flashes. Build simple bluetooth modules that can connect to the hotshoe or IR of existing flashes to convert them to this new system. Bluetooth would also allow keyboards (and even mice) for fancier control of the camera, and configuration of parameters that today require software on a PC. A bluetooth mouse, with its wheels (like the camera’s wheels) could make an interesting remote control.

With Bluetooth 3.0, which can go 480 megabits, this is also a suitable protocol for downloading photos or live tethering. Wireless USB (also 480 megabits at short range) is another contender.

Let it be a USB master as well as slave, so it can also be connected to USB GPSs and other peripherals dream up, including cell phones, most of which can now be a USB slave. This would also allow USB microphones, speakers and video displays.

Finally, add a protocol (USB or just plain IP) to the hot shoe to make this happen. (See below.)

Make more use of the microphone

I’ve always liked the idea of capturing a few seconds of sound around every still photo. This can be used for mood, or it can be used for notes on the photo. Particularly if we can do speech-to-text on the audio later, so that I can put captions on photos right then and there. This would work especially well if I can get a bluetooth headset with high quality microphone audio, something that is still hard to do right now.

If your camera can shoot video, it can of course be used as an audio recorder by putting on the lens cap, but why not just offer a voice recorder mode once you have gone to the trouble to support a good microphone.

Treat the camera as a software platform

Let other people write code to run on the camera. Add-on modules and new features. For low-end, deliberately crippled cameras this might not be allowed, but if I’m paying more for my camera than a computer, I should be able to program it, or download other people’s interesting programs.

Furthermore, let this code send signals to other devices, over USB, the flash shoe, and even bluetooth. Consider including a few general purpose digital read/write pins for general microcontroller function, or make a simple module to allow that.

Letting others write code for your product has a cost — you must define APIs and support them. But the benefits are vast, and would generate great loyalty to the camera to do this first. I imagine software for panorama taking, high-dynamic range photography, timelapse, automatic exposure evaluation and much more — perhaps even the mistake-detection described above.

Create a fancy new hotshoe with data flow and power flow

The hotshoe should include a generalized data bus like two-way USB or just IP over something. Make all peripherals, including flashes, speak this protocol for control. But also allow the unit on the flash hot shoe to control the camera — this will be a two way street.

In the hotshoe, include pins for power — both to access the power from the camera, and to allow hotshoe devices to assist powering the camera and to charge the battery. This would allow the creation of low-powered flashes which are small and don’t need a battery because they draw from the camera battery. Not big, but suitable for fill flash and other purposes. The 5D has no built-in flash and I miss the fill-flash of the on-camera flash of the 40D. Obviously you don’t want devices sucking all the battery, and some might have their own batteries, but I would rather carry two camera batteries than have to carry a camera battery and then another battery type and charger type for my flash!

One could make a hotshoe device that holds more camera batteries, as an alternative to the battery grip. But hotshoe devices, with their data link, could do much more than control flashes. They could include fancy audio equipment, even a controller for the servo motors of a rotating pano-head or pan and scan tripod. Hotshoe devices could include wifi or bluetooth if it’s not already in the phone. Or GPS location.

The Hotshoe would offer 5v USB style power to start, but on approval, switch the power lines to high-current direct battery access, to allow extra power devices, and even battery chargers or AC adapters.

Support incremental download

Perhaps some cameras do this but I have not seen it. Instead of deleting photos from cards, just let things cycle through, and have the downloader only fetch the new photos, and mark the ones fetched as ready for deletion when needed. It’s always good to have your photos in multiple places — why delete them from the card before you need to? Possibly make the old photos semi-invisible. And, as I have asked before, when a photo is deleted, don’t delete it, but move it to a recycle bin where I can undelete. Of course, as space is needed, purge things from that bin in order. Though still call it delete, so that when rent-a-cops try to make you delete photos, you can fake it.

Put an Arca-swiss style plate on the bottom of the camera

Serious photographers have all settled on this plate, and have one stuck to the bottom of their camera, which is annoying when the camera is on your neck. Put these dovetails right into the base of the camera, with a standard tripod hole in the center (as these plates often can’t quite do as they must put the screw in the center.) I pay $50 for every new camera to get a custom plate. Just build it in. Those with other QR systems can still connect to the 1/4-20 tripod hole.

Consider a new format between jpeg and raw

The jpeg compression is good enough that detail is not lost. What is lost is exposure range. Raw format preserves everything, but is very large and slower and harder to use when organizing photographs — its main value is in post-processing photographs. A 12 bit jpeg standard exists, but is not widely used, but if cameras started offering it, I expect we would see support for it proliferate, even faster than support for raw has done.

Show me the blurries

A feature I have been requesting for some time. After I take a photo, let one of the review modes offered provide a zoom in of something that is supposed to be in focus. That could be the best focus point, or simply the most contrasty part of the photo. If, when I see the most contrasty part of the photo, it’s still blurry, I can know I didn’t focus right or hold the camera steady enough. If using focus points, the wheel could rotate around the focus points that were supposed to be in focus, so I can see what was probably my subject and how well it was shot.

Have a good accelerometer, and use it

Most cameras have a basic accelerometer to know if the camera is in portrait mode. (Oddly, they don’t all use it to know how to display photos on the screen.) But you can do much more. For example, you should be able to tell if the camera is on a tripod or handheld, based on how steady it is. That knowledge can be used to enable or disable the image stabilizer. It can also be used to add stability, by offering to delay the shutter release until the camera is being held steady when doing longer exposures. (Nikon had a feature called BSS, where it would shoot several long exposure shots, and retain the one that was least blurry. This should be a regular feature for all cameras.) Knowing the camera is stable on a tripod should also allow automatic exposure controllers to make more use of longer exposures if they need to in low light, though of course with moving subjects you still need manual control. (The camera should also be able to tell if the subjects are moving if it knows the camera itself is stable.)

Like new phones, also have a compass, and record the direction of all photos, to add to GPS data. This would allow identification of subjects. It would also allow “panorama” modes that know when you have rotated the camera sufficiently for the next overlapping shot. Finally, the accelerometer should offer me a digital level on the screen so I can quickly level the camera.

Embrace your inner eBook

I wrote about this last month — realize we are using cameras to do more than just take pictures.