Olympus Akira Watanabe: 12 Megapixels Enough

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Akira Watanabe, a manager of Olympus Imaging’s SLR planning department stated that 12 megapixels on a digital SLR is good enough for most customers: “Twelve megapixels is, I think, enough for covering most applications most customers need.” In an interview at the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) show he stated, “We have no intention to compete in the megapixel wars for E-System.” The E-System Watanabe is referring to is Olympus’ line of digital SLR cameras. I applaud Watanabe for a breath of fresh air especially because these comments are coming from within a major manufacturer of DSLRs. I agree with him: we really don’t need more pixels, we need the pixels to be better at capturing light.

Olympus is part of the Four Thirds camera system and its E-System digital SLRs have image sensors that are smaller than those in mainstream SLRs from companies like Canon and Nikon. Panasonic also makes DSLRs using the Four Thirds camera system.

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Not having to waste time developing ways to cram more pixels into a tiny image sensor, Olympus will focus on more important aspects to a digital SLR system such as dynamic range, color fidelity, higher light sensitivities. If you are not already aware more pixels do not always mean better pictures. On the other hand, the bigger the image sensor the better the pictures will be in general. Similarly the bigger the lens the better the pictures will be too. Given the same optics, same sized image sensor and same image processing algorithms more pixels actually means less picture quality because each pixel is getting less light. Less light means poor image quality.

To be clear, Watanabe’s comments were geared toward mainstream photographers. Most customers will be just fine with 12 megapixels. Professional (as well as hardcore amateur) photographers that need every pixel they can get will require considerably more. With a huge image sensor called full-frame and with a dimension of 36 x 24mm like those found in Canon’s 1D or 5D digital SLRs, you can have considerably more pixels without degrading picture quality precisely because the image sensor is large. The 5D Mark II, for instance, has 22 million pixels.

“We don’t think 20 megapixels is necessary for everybody. If a customer wants more than 12 megapixels, he should go to the full-frame models,” Watanabe said. Ditto.

“I personally believed, before starting the E-System, that 12 was enough,” Watanabe said. “We interviewed many professional photographers, people in studios, about how many they needed in the future. Before we started, the system, we had a rough idea we’d be at a plateau at 12 megapixels. We gradually increased the pixel count,” with the newer Olympus SLRs now reaching that level. Watanabe also believes that autofocus will change dramatically in DSLRs.

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Image courtesy: DPReview

Most DSLRs today use a “phase detect” autofocus subsystem. Light is bounced from the viewfinder to a focus sensor that is located on the bottom of the DSLR. The sensor can process contrasts quickly and can rapidly focus–most DSLRs are much faster at autofocusing than even the best point-and-shoots. Compact digital cameras, on the other hand, use a contrast detect method of autofocusing where data is analyzed director from the image sensor. Watanabe believes image sensor-based autofocus soon will outperform phase-detect systems: “In terms of speed, phase detect is faster. But imager autofocus will soon exceed phase detect.” That’s a bold statement. Watanabe continues: “In terms of accuracy, imager-based autofocus is much more advantageous. It directly focuses on the surface itself. Phase detect focuses not on the real surface but on a virtual surface.” Power consumption is another consideration. When the image sensor is engaged for autofocusing a lot of power can be drained. Watanabe stated that when autofocusing only a small portion of the image sensor is used such as the company’s E-30 DSLR.

Olympus has several DSLRs including:

It looks like Olympus has garnered a number of highly recommended models by Digital Photography.

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