Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nothing Remains The Same For Long In This Digital World

Today, November 23, in the New York Times, Circuits by David Pogue, he said “Pixels Are Like Cupcakes”. Cute, and a good analogy that a digital photo sensor chip is like a sheet that cupcakes are baked in, and that each cupcake holder is like an R, G, or B sensor site, but rather than cake dough it gathers light focused on it by the camera lens. Then he goes on to argue that the size of the cupcake or sensor site is determined by the overall physical size of the sensor chip and the number of megapixels it has. Further he argues that as the number of megapixels is increased for a given sensor area size, the smaller the size of each sensor must be, so it gathers less light and therefore functions less effectively.

On that basis he claims it is better to buy a two year old digital camera design with 8 megapixels than a new, current model with 12 megapixels because the older model with larger sensor sites will produce better image quality. That argument would make sense if everything involved otherwise remained static for that two year difference. But it doesn’t! In the last two years new sensor chip materials have been introduced that have greater light sensitivity and new and better micro-lenses for the image sensor sites (a microscopic lens in front of each sensor site to focus and concentrate light into each sensor’s center) are being used. In other words the sensitivity deficiency caused by smaller sensor site size between and 8 megapixel and a 12 megapixel sensor array, may no longer be a performance factor because the sensor material and design of the newer 12 megapixel is better, and maybe even superior in image reproduction than the older 8 megapixel model. Americans have a general tendency to think because something is bigger it must be better, but technology research and development proves that wrong-headed every day in this new digital world we live in if you consider products like Apple’s iPod or iPhone.

But even old film technology should if understood, argue in favor of the idea that the more image information the better the photographic quality, and a 12 megapixel digital camera captures and reproduces more image information than an 8 megapixel. Isn’t that the same principle as using a slow, fine-grain film to get better photo quality compared to using a fast, grainy film? The more grains of silver per square millimeter of film, with fine-grain film, would have to result in more information and therefore better image quality. Likewise photographers who wanted to improve the quality of their photographs would upgrade from 35mm to 120 size film, medium format cameras because the larger film size area recorded more image information, hence better photographic image quality.

The New York Times Circuit feature with David Pogue covers every kind of electronic/digital gadget consumers are buying these days. That’s a pretty wide field, so if he isn’t entirely savvy about digital photography that’s understandable. That he has a critical eye for product shortcomings, like Apple leaving out the FireWire support in its new MacBooks is a legitimate criticism and useful to consumers. But over a long period of time, Pogue has tried to claim that more megapixels does not produce better photographic image quality. That seems to me to be pandering with false sympathy for the digital photographers who may not want to keep up with the manufacturer’s megapixel race and its forced obsolescence. Sure you buy a little reader empathy, even loyalty, but by misleading them?

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