The digicam for people who can’t fit an SLR in their pocket, the Canon S95. Photo (CC-BY) Erik Forsberg.

The New York Times ran a story over the holiday weekend on sensor size calculations and picks for pocket digicams that’s an absolute must-read for anyone who works with pixels. David Pogue is in rare form; this is one of my favorite stories from him recently.

Mainstream tech stories often shy away from the nuts and bolts behind the scenes, but here Pogue has some interesting revelations about sensor size measurement. As usual, a little (odd) history is involved:

It turns out that even if you divide out the 1/2.3 thing, the result — 0.435 inches, for example — does not represent the sensor’s real size. Those decimal fractions don’t measure the sensor. Instead, because of a bizarre 50-year-old convention, they measure the 1950s television tube that those rectangular sensor chips could fit inside of. And that’s the outside diameter.

He goes on to recommend higher-quality pocket cameras. My wager: nifty and convenient as a device like the iPhone 4 and smart Androids may be, convergence devices won’t replace dedicated devices any time in the near future. Phones are delicate balancing acts of competing factors in economics, size, power consumption, and heat, before they even begin to contend with the demands of the phone handset market. And that means they’re subject to the laws of physics.

What’s wonderful about developments in cameras like the Canon S95 is, while your mobile phone may exact some serious sacrifices, dedicated devices may manage greater power in more portable form factors. Like the phone, they make compromises; they just ease the tension at the ends of the equation.

For people looking to capture expressive pixels, that means everything. A device like the Canon S95, while far short of the flexibility or quality of an SLR, can nonetheless provide more extensive manual controls and perform under more varied lighting settings. It can accomplish what you need. I don’t doubt people will continue to make art with phones, too, but having a specialized tool on the go can help realize ideas – inspiring and necessary as is a well-stocked kitchen.

Then again, maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe it won’t be the forward march of technology, but an increasingly-savvy photographic public, that saves the issue of sensor fidelity. At the apex of film photography, average snapshot photographers became more demanding and better-informed about the implements they used. That took a huge dip in the opposite direction as all of us became used to digital. Perhaps the pendulum will begin to shift the opposite way – provided journalists in the generalist press, not just the specialist outlets, point the way.

STATE OF THE ART | Sizing a Sensor: No Easy Way [New York Times]

In the opposite direction, I’m also intrigued by low-fidelity digital; more on that after I get time to play with the SuperHeadz model from Santa. And once I manage to get on a non-canceled flight.

  • danny s

    +1 the s95

    i've had a yearning for a truly pocketable cam with manual focus and other advanced controls, the s95 fills this need nicely.  i now have to get back into the habit of actually carrying this "real" camera with me, as i have missed so many photo opportunities to low-light blur and auto-focus blunders whilst relying on an iphone.  plus, i feel i haven't yet earned the right to an slr, but the s95 should teach me most of what i need to know regarding photo principles to justify a behemoth slr and a bag of lenses.

    one thing that may come of the camera-phone phenomenon — cruddy, me-too point and shoots will likely cease to evolve and exist at all, when the only reason to have a dedicated camera next to a smart-phone is to have access to a plethora of advanced mechanical controls and long tubes of glass that a camera phone has yet to implement. 

    another possibility — in the future, a device like an iphone acting as a brain or core for a system of advanced exoskeleton specialized devices.  i can imagine a future, zippier iphone acting as the cpu, storage, and display for a full slr/video cam housing, sort of like the audio recorders that utilize an ipod as the heart that are out now.

  • lauren

    Looking forward to your lo-fi reviews!