2012 in review: The year in cameras

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As digital photography approaches the point of ubiquity—it’s not just about grabbing the camera for a Sunday afternoon at the park anymore; people are photographing everywhere, all the time—the trend in 2012 has been toward downsizing for portability, with Wi-Fi-friendly features that let shooters easily share their images on social networks. In 2012, many camera companies offered a range of smaller, but more powerful, video-friendly models alongside burgeoning app-based Internet connectivity.

Compact shakeout

As the popularity of digital photography grows, a shakeout in the marketplace is taking shape. This year has witnessed the accelerating popularity of compact system cameras (also known as mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras and compact interchangeable lens cameras or CILC) for casual snapshooters, photo enthusiasts, and even advanced hobbyists and pros. These models attempt to combine the image quality of a DSLR into a body that approaches point and shoot dimensions. Although such cameras are generally not pocketable, they’re hardly the large, hefty photographic gear that people are used to toting around.

The year 2012 also witnessed rapid evolution in the compact arena with Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus, and Sony filling the space with numerous variations on the theme as Nikon and Canon—traditional makers of film and digital DSLRs—tried to find their place. To meet the challenge, Nikon offered up the Nikon 1 V2 while Canon weighed in with its first mirrorless model, the Canon EOS M ($400 as a kit). An InfoTrends study of the 2012 U.S. Interchangeable Lens Camera Market called out Nikon's role in this year's market: "With Nikon's entrance into the CILC category, the market dynamics of this segment have changed dramatically. Targeting female buyers, Nikon is looking to expand the interchangeable lens camera market by bringing in new buyers."

The study further noted that for 2012, the CILC market was heavily skewed to early adopting hobbyists looking for a backup to their DSLR, while serious enthusiasts continue to upgrade DSLRS to even more fully featured models.

Canon EOS M

Advanced compact cameras such as Sony's Alpha NEX line (which includes this year's NEX 6 and NEX 5R) kept getting better, and they'll likely continue to improve in features, performance, and popularity in 2013. These cameras are great as everyday and backup cameras for pros and other advanced enthusiasts, and they serve as good learning tools for aspiring photographers who are stepping up from point-and-shoots. If you're going for the truly diminutive, the $600 Pentax Q10 serves up a full menu of features while weighing just 7 ounces.

Pentax Q 10

Technology advances

Accompanying the rise of the compact system camera, we're seeing the growth of DSLT (Digital Single-Lens Translucent) technology. The popularity of the new Sony SLT-A77, SLT-A57, and SLT-A99 shows that Sony’s fixed-mirror technology can produce serious, professional cameras. The 24 MP sensor—something hard to imagine just a couple of years ago—appears poised to become standard for cameras at the medium-high end (which is really the high end for everybody except a small portion of the professional market).

Even with so many new and intriguing models debuting in 2012, Lytro's Light Field camera stands apart. While the image quality leaves room for improvement, the ability to capture a scene with the Lytro and change the focal point after the fact is unlike anything else on the market. The Lytro stands as one of the most innovative cameras to come along in years, and we're very interested to see how this technology develops in 2013.

Lytro Light Field

Touchscreens on camera LCDs became more commonplace this year. For example, users execute most of the controls on the Canon EOM ($800), and on many other models, by touchscreen. Some cameras now balance hard controls with touchscreen for actions such as focus, shutter trigger, menu scrolling, and image playback. Although touchscreen interfaces on digital cameras still aren't as intuitive or sophisticated as those on the iPhone or iPad today, it’s likely that either partial or full touchscreens will gain in popularity, especially in the point-and-shoot world.

Camera-phone coup

The signs were already there, but it's worth observing that smartphone cameras in 2012 were on their way to taking over casual photography entirely, for both stills and video. Does that mean that low-end pocket cameras are on the way out? That appears to be the consensus, though it has not happened yet. Aanalysts say that Japanese camera powerhouses, Canon, Olympus, Sony, and Nikon are all feeling pressure from the smartphone sector. Olympus president Hiroyuki Sasa has publicly acknowledged, "The market for compact digital cameras shrank at a faster speed and scale than we had imagined as smartphones with camera functions spread around the world."

Canon PowerShot SX260 HS

Phone-based video cameras have improved so much, and make sharing online so easy (which is what a vast portion of digital photography is about now), that for many shooters there's no reason to buy a dedicated video camera, either. Unless you have a special situation that calls for a better and more versatile camera—for example, you need a megazoom such as Canon's PowerShot SX260 HS ($200) for sports photography—the iPhone or Android device in your pocket will shoot the video you want to upload to Facebook or Twitter right now.

Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS

Indeed, camera makers this year catered to specific consumer-oriented shooting needs with specialized features. Canon, Olympus, and Panasonic each introduced pocket-zoom models in 2012 that measure less than an inch thick, with Canon's PowerShot Elph 520 HS ($300) offering a 12X-optical-zoom lens in a tiny body. Olympus's VG-160 has a 10X-optical-zoom lens packed in a 0.75-inch-deep frame, and Panasonic's slender Lumix SZ7 matches that optical reach in a 0.9-inch body. The 12-megapixel Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS, on the other hand, is built to travel in all kinds of atmospheric conditions.

Sales of smartphones with cameras have already overtaken sales of dedicated point-and-shoot cameras. Chart from Kleiner Perkins Caufiled Byers, 2012 KPCB Internet Trends Year-End Update.

Smartphone-camera convergence

Cameras with smartphone functionality and user interfaces, such as the Nikon Coolpix S800C ($350) and the Samsung Galaxy Camera ($500), both 16 MP models released in 2012, continue to blur the distinction between cameras and smartphonesWhile the Nikon Coolpix S800c was the first camera on the market with Android on board, the Galaxy Camera's use of Android version 4.1 (Jelly Bean) makes it feel more advanced through its inclusion of 3G or 4G cellular connectivity. The S800C runs a previous version of the Android OS, version 2.3 (Gingerbread).

Nikon Coolpix S800C

Related to this is the appearance of camera-specific apps—either proprietary or OS-based from the Google Play Store—that let you download apps directly to the camera to personalize and enhance its features. Sony, for example, this year released proprietary apps for some of its cameras (such as the NEX-5R) via a dedicated Sony app store called PlayMemories Camera Apps. This app trend is definitely something to watch.

Samsung Galaxy Camera

Wi-Fi and social networking

Snapping and sharing is now a huge part of digital photography, and the camera industry has been trying to get this process right. To date, Samsung has done a good job of incorporating relatively simple and painless Wi-Fi sharing options. However, the question arises: If Wi-Fi on point-and-shoots has arrived, could DSLRs be far behind? Canon already includes Wi-Fi connectivity with the 20 MP EOS 6D, and it's not a stretch to expect other camera makers to follow suit.

Sony NEX 5R

Sony's entry-level mirrorless offering, the 16 MP Alpha NEX-6 ($1000 for body and lens), offers built-in Wi-Fi plus downloadable Sony-specific apps, as does the company's NEX-5R. Those Wi-Fi features let you tether the camera to your iOS or Android smartphone to upload photos via a hotspot; plus you can pair the camera with the phone to share images with social networking websites. Panasonic's somewhat larger, DSLR-style Lumix GH3 ($2000) is another Wi-Fi-enabled camera that can link up with iOS and Android devices for image viewing, browsing, and geotagging.

On the video front, tiny cameras designed to capture action sports are also gaining a broader fan base. Woodman Labs’ GoPro Hero line, for example, proved popular over the last couple of years, and the company just introduced the even lighter, smaller HD Hero 3 (up to $400).

Full-frame DSLRs

This year marked the arrival of a new generation of full-frame cameras catering to advanced enthusiasts. Nikon and Canon offered relatively inexpensive models such as the D600 and the EOS 6D, both around $2100. Meanwhile Sony debuted the SLT-A99 ($2800), brimming with features for still and video shooters alike.

Sony SLT-A99

Full-frame cameras such as the Nikon D600, the Canon EOS 6D, and the mirrorless (albeit fixed-lens and expensive) Sony Cyber-shot RX1 ($2800) are examples of a trend toward more-affordable full-frame models. Some photographers think that the full-frame phenomenon might possibly trickle down to interchangeable-lens cameras/compact system cameras such as the Sony NEX series, the Olympus OMD/Pen series, and others. Such models were hot this year, and will likely remain so next year.

The end of film and the way we view photos

Finally, the demise of Kodak's camera division in 2012 symbolizes the long slide toward the end of the film-camera era. Digital cameras from all manufacturers are better than ever and continue to improve, with larger sensors and more powerful processors. In the consumer and prosumer arenas, practically no one is claiming that film is superior anymore, at least from a purely technical viewpoint.

That evolution is coupled with what some observers believe to be a real shift in people's perceptions of what photos should look like. The general public is getting so accustomed to seeing Instagram/iPhone photos that this is what they expect and what they're comfortable looking at. Many longtime photographers wonder what will happen to "traditional" images if people see Instagram photos as the norm—and mostly view them on a monitor rather than as prints. But a corollary question to that might be, what constitutes a "traditional" image?

The above trends converged in 2012 to challenge camera manufacturers to keep their products relevant and innovative. The year 2013 should be fascinating.

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