PMA09: The camera industry learns to adjust

PMA09 LogoAfter years of double-digital growth, the camera industry will face a cold reality in the hot sands of Las Vegas at this year’s international camera and photography trade show, PMA09, which opens on Tuesday. For the first time in recent memory, digital camera sales are falling.

As a result, when I get to Vegas, I expect to find a much more subdued PMA than in the past, perhaps along the lines of this year’s CES. Already, reliable sources say, printer giant Epson will not be at PMA09. (The PMA exhibitor list says otherwise, so we’ll see on Tuesday who’s right).

My guess is that camera manufacturers will try to strike a balance between blatantly showing off new gear without being too ostentatious for these hard economic times. Trade shows thrive on fantasy, which is why you see elaborately constructed stages that look like Hollywood sets at some. But the sinking economy is bound to put some kind of damper on such frivolity.

Showiness aside, the industry remains under real pressure to undergird sales with innovative new products. That should mean dozens of new point-and-shoots and SLRs cameras to gawk at and try out.

Here’s a rundown on the trends, features, and products I expect to blog about over the next few days:

Tougher cameras: Olympus has led the way with its SW series (now branded as “Tough”) of point-and-shoots, but I expect more manufacturers to hop on this bandwagon incorporating such features as the tap technology found on the Olympus Stylus 1050SW.

HD video becomes more the norm. It should replace standard-definition video features on more and more point-and-shoots, though camcorders will still shoot better quality video.

Point-and-shoots with SLR features and quality. Last fall, when Panasonic introduced the Lumix DMC-G1, the first Micro Four-Thirds digital camera, the company claimed it offered the power of an SLR in a point-and-shoot. At the show, I’m expecting to see something from Panasonic and Olympus to follow-up on the DMC-G1. I also expect both of these follow-up cameras to have video capability. New lenses should also begin to fill out the system for the DMC-G1.

SLRs with more point-and-shoot features. For years, if you wanted a camera that could shoot video, you reached for a point-and-shoot. In September of 2008, that changed with the introduction of the Nikon D90, the first digital SLR with HD video. Canon soon followed with the EOS 5D, Mark II. Now more than half the models in our Ratings of digital SLR cameras (available to subscribers) include a live-view LCD, another point-and-shoot camera feature that is trickling up. Expect more of the same for some time to come.

Faster burst modes: Casio blew everyone away with its $999 Casio Exilim Pro EX-F1, which could not only shoot 60 still images per second, but could vary the burst: 30 shots in 2 seconds, 4 in 15 seconds, 6 in 10 seconds, etc. Casio has added similar features to the EX-FH20, and recently introduced the EX-FC100 and EX-FS10. Look for other manufacturers to add such speed in point-and-shoots.

Converging tech. I expect to see more cameras combining differing technologies synergistically with varying degrees of success. Sony’s point-and-shoots, for example, combine face- and blink-detection, smile shutter, and automated scene modes to improve images. Then there’s the Polaroid PoGo, a Zink-based (or zero ink) camera that combines printing and camera into one device. Sony’s recently announced Cyber-shot DSC-G3 claims to do Wi-Fi right: It’s the first digicam with a built-in web browser that can upload both still and video files. Sony says it can upload directly to photo-sharing sites like Shutterfly and video-sharing sites like YouTube, all via Wi-Fi hot spots.

Greater sophistication: Camera makers are going to continue to tweak scene modes, beefing up the ability to shoot panoramas and maximize dynamic range. Maximum ISO settings will continue to increase, too, although until we test these capabilities in our labs, how useful such high ISO setting will be remains a matter of speculation. Cellphone-like graphical interfaces and playback features will also appear in more models. I also expect to see more GPS-like features. Of course, there will continue to be shooting modes that claim to make us beautiful or even smile, but these modes are the opposite of sophistication.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) modes: Although you don’t need a special mode for creating high-dynamic range photos, I expect some high-end SLRs, and maybe even some point-and-shoots, to start including this feature.

New JPEG format: Although it may not happen until 2010, a new type of image file, called JPEG XR, may start showing up in cameras. It combines some of the benefits of RAW files with the easy-to-use JPEG format. Some big names, including Microsoft, have taken an interest in it. What remains to be seen is whether the format’s supporters can get camera manufacturers to it in their cameras and whether Adobe, the company that makes Photoshop image-editing software, embraces it. If none of that happens, JPEG XR is unlikely to become a major factor in digital photography.

—Terry Sullivan