Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Mine's Bigger than Yours

On Nov. 1, Nikon Corp. announced its long-awaited and eagerly anticipated new digital SLR, the D200.

There had been rumors for months that Nikon was going to release a successor to its aging D100 camera. There were leaked photos floating around and leaked specs. There also were a ton of rumors flying around on the newsgroups: it would have a CCD sensor, no it would have a CMOS sensor; it would be 10.2 megapixels, it would be 10.4 megapixels, it would be 12.4 megapixels; it would have a built-in flash, it wouldn't have a built-in flash. A veritable feeding frenzy grew up around the camera, which hadn't even been announced yet.

Looking at the specs for the new D200 (both the rumored ones and the official ones in Nikon's press release), got me to thinking. Some of the specs for digital cameras sound very impressive, but are virtually meaningless to the average human. Computer and digital camera geeks may get a thrill from the numbers, but normal people have no clue what the hell the camera manufacturers are talking about.

And the camera manufacturers are well aware of this. They exploit it to their advantage to build a buzz around their newest products.

For example, the new Nikon D200 boasts a 10.2 megapixel CCD sensor featuring a large image size of 3,872 x 2,592 pixels (it also has settings for medium and small image size). Sounds impressive enough. So I decided to check the specs against Nikon's top-of-the-line professional digital SLR, the D2X. It sports a 12.84 megapixel CMOS sensor, featuring a large image size of 4,288 x 2,848 pixels. Sounds even more impressive, doesn't it?

But then I realized. I have no idea what the hell those numbers mean. And I will bet you that 99.9% of the human population doesn't either. The numbers themselves are meaningless (and not just because I'm math-challenged). With digital camera sensors, the size of the sensor itself is less important than how the photosites (they gather light and generate pixels) are arranged and what their size and shape are.

Spouting megapixels for this and that is just marketing hype that sounds impressive and technical. But what it does is make it hard for the average person to compare the specs of different cameras. A huge myth as sprung up about megapixels, and that more of them are better. A 6 megapixel camera is not as good a an 8 megapixel camera. How can it be, it has less megapixels? Well, that's not necessarily the case. But that's a subject for another column.

What would be more useful to the camera buyer is what size file the camera outputs. Saying a digital camera has a 4,288 x 2,848 pixel sensor is just as useful as saying a quarter is just shy of an inch in diameter, or a nickel is three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

That may be useful if you plan to shingle your house with quarters. But if you plan to use it for its intended purpose, it's not useful at all. It's more useful to know that a quarter is worth 25 cents and a nickel is worth five cents.

Nikon's D2X, with its 4,288 x 2,848 pixel sensor, outputs a TIFF file that's 36.5 megabytes. The sensor on the D200 outputs a large file that's about 20.7 megabytes. This, of course, changes if you shoot RAW or JPG files and what size you choose to shoot.

This would be more practical information. It tells the average person much more than the pixel size of the sensor. The average photographer deals with megabytes all day long -- it a well-known commodity. Pixels, not so much. When you manipulate a file in Photoshop, you save it to a certain size, usually in megabytes.

If you're sending an image to a friend through e-mail, it's useful to know what's the largest megabyte file his e-mail client can handle. He doesn't tell you to send him a file no larger than 3,500 pixels, does he? If he does, he's definitely a geek!

The point is, real-world information -- while maybe not as impressive sounding as pixels, CCD and CMOS -- are more useful to the average human. Camera manufactures should translate all the digi-babel into a language us humans can easily understand. After all, we're the one's who buy their products and use them.

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