Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Major Innovations Of The Last 25 Years
In the quarter-century since OP began publication, there have been incredible strides in imaging. Here are some of the most significant and their implications for photography moving forward.
Photography is an art form that tends to push the limits of technology. Looking back over the last 25 years, we can see that many of the greatest innovations have served to define our perception of photography. Moving forward, these and other developments may just change what it means to be a photographer.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1985, Minolta launched the first SLR camera system with integrated autofocus. Autofocus had been available prior to that—cameras featuring autofocus were developed in the late 1970s—but 1985 marked the beginning of the wide availability of a feature many photographers take for granted.To be sure, many photographers were slow to embrace autofocus, and some still prefer to take the manual approach. But there’s no question autofocus has had a huge impact on the way photographers approach a subject, and has greatly improved the odds of capturing sharp photos. This is especially true for moving subjects, but even for static landscapes there’s a benefit to employing autofocus, which over the years has evolved to the point that it offers incredible precision, speed and accuracy.
First Digital SLR
In 1991, Kodak released the very first digital SLR, the DCS-100. I don’t think very many photographers quite realized the revolution that was in store, or just how quickly that revolution would take hold. That first digital SLR offered a resolution of “only” 1.3 megapixels, but it still marked a huge turning point in photography that reverberates to this day.
Many parts work together in a modern digital camera, and at the core is the image sensor. Within the sensor there’s a variety of high-tech components. To make digital cameras viable for photographers, the resolution of that sensor needs to be adequate to ensure fine detail and relatively large output sizes. The challenge is that for a given sensor size, increasing resolution requires a reduction in the size of individual photosites on the sensor. Smaller pixels means less light and, thus, a need for more amplification of the signal, resulting in noise.
Many technological advancements have contributed to the ability of modern image sensors to offer increasingly high resolution while reducing noise levels. One of the key pieces of technology when it comes to reducing noise is the microlens array used in CMOS image sensors, first used around the year 2000. A microlens array consists of a collection of tiny lenses, with (generally) one lens for every individual photosite. This focuses the light striking each photosite so that as much of that light as possible strikes the photodiode rather than the additional components around each photodiode. Without microlens arrays, we wouldn’t be able to capture such high resolutions with relatively low noise levels.
Most image sensors only gather one color value for each pixel, using a colored filter in front of each photosite so that each pixel records either red, green or blue light. Postprocessing, either in-camera or using RAW conversion software, calculates the missing values in order to determine the actual color for each pixel.
In 2002, Foveon (acquired by Sigma Corporation in 2008) released a full-color sensor. This unique sensor has three layers of photosites, much the way color film captures light with multiple light-sensitive layers. The result is an ability to capture color with greater fidelity and finer detail. While a relatively small percentage of digital cameras utilize the Foveon sensor technology, it still represents an important innovation. Canon and Nikon also have patents related to full-color sensors, suggesting potential developments on this front in the future.
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