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From 4K and full-frame to drones and VR, looking at digital imaging in 2016

digital image in  light l

The Light L16 is a "computational camera" with a claimed resolution of 52 megapixels, rivaling full-frame cameras. It's one of the camera innovations we can look forward to in 2016 – if it makes it into production.

Digital imaging is expected to play a big role at CES 2016, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), but not exactly in the manner of years past. The number of companies and floor space dedicated to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality, drones, and 360-degree panoramic cameras will increase significantly, while traditional cameras, like point-and-shoots, interchangeable lens models (DSLR and mirrorless), action cams, and camcorders, will shift from headlining stars to supporting acts.

All of these improvements are good news for anyone looking to upgrade in 2016.

For anyone who’s followed the industry, this trend has been unfolding for some time. Traditional manufacturers will continue to turn out better models every year, and 2016 will be no exception. But few will introduce innovative technologies, as they have in the past (there will always be a few surprises, of course). Instead, the imaging buzz in 2016 will focus on companies such as Facebook (and its Oculus division), Google, and Microsoft, and the many startups vying for a place at the table.

State of traditional cameras

First, we’ll answer some questions that might be top of mind. Will megapixel counts go up next year? Sure. Should we expect more introductions of full-frame mirrorless and DSLR cameras? Definitely. Will improved 4K video and higher ISOs for shooting in low light be more readily available? Bet on it.

All of these improvements are good news for anyone looking to upgrade in 2016. Yet, these are evolutionary changes – nothing out of the box or category changing, like VR, 3D, or artificial intelligence. The majority of cameras will continue to do what they’ve been doing for years, which is to take better pictures and videos – not a bad thing.

Nikon Coolpix S5300

As the traditional digicam market has matured, expect fewer pocket models to come, and a focus on higher-end shooters.

What cameras won’t do, however, is sell in huge numbers, as smartphones have wreaked havoc with traditional manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, et al). So much so that analyst Chris Chute of IDC likens the photography industry to a white dwarf star.

“Billions of years ago, the universe was created with the explosion of that star,” Chute says. “Ever since, the light has slowly dimmed.”

Chute points out digicam sales have sunk from a peak of 35 million in 2009, to six million in 2016 – a drop of 80 percent or more – and this long slide will last for years.

We also shouldn’t expect a blockbuster product to reverse the trend anytime soon, and CES 2016 in early January will be an indication of this. Chute sees a continuation of the move toward higher-end cameras – $500 and higher – from the major companies, with incremental changes to features and sensor design. With the huge sales decrease, he sees the industry going back to the good old days when it was more of a cottage industry servicing hobbyists, semi-pros, and pros.

Smartphones have wreaked havoc with traditional manufacturers.

But that doesn’t mean the big camera companies will disappear. On the contrary, Chute feels there won’t be many changes to the big names in the business, like Canon, Sony, and Samsung, as these companies have ancillary business units that support them. One exception, according to Chute, is Nikon, which is the only company he thinks might have to go through some serious soul-searching (i.e., diversify) as their business revolves solely around their camera lineup.

Speaking of smartphones, Chute feels they’ve hit a wall in terms of photographic capability, and even they’re looking for something new. VR may make an impact but “every decade there’s a VR effort and it goes nowhere,” Chute says. “VR reminds me of the 3D adventure HDTV manufacturers trotted out several years ago.” He sees VR as more appropriate for business, but there will be plenty of demos at CES, along with camera-laden drones flying everywhere.

What we can expect in 2016

Supposedly coming in summer of 2016 is the Light L16, a “computational camera” with a claimed resolution of 52 megapixels. There are actually 16 cameras built into the brick-like body that delivers full-frame DSLR performance, in a much smaller package – at least, that’s the statement from the company. We’ve seen this type of announcement before – think of the Lytro – and we’ll believe it when we see it. Also crawling out of the labs might be an all-in-one camera and printer, from a formerly Kodak patent acquired by Google, as well as much-hyped digital 3D and 360-degree capture devices. Kickstarter will be full of supposed digital imaging breakthroughs, but, again, these products are only real when they actually arrive in people’s hands.

The Light L16.

The Light L16.

Although smartphones have decimated pocket digicams, camera manufacturers will continue to improve their image quality and capabilities with add-ons like the Sony QX1, Olympus Air, and DxO One. Since prices start at $299, their appeal is limited and accounts for the popularity of add-ons like the 4-in-1 Olloclip. We also expect to see a growing number of clip-ons that turn smartphones into VR machines – just add a headset.

On the traditional side of things, Nikon announced in November the development of its next-generation full-frame FX-format DSLR, the D5, which will be targeted to pros. No specs were given but a sensor beyond the 36-megapixels of the D810 makes sense. Since Sony supplies Nikon chips, a 42.4MP sensor, like the one in the Sony A7R II, is a good guess.

Pentax is another manufacturer expected to enter the full-frame DSLR market in spring 2016. As Sony is predicted to supply the sensor, a 24MP or 36MP chip is a logical assumption. Rumors suggest Samsung may have a full-frame mirrorless camera sometime next year, too.

The big CP+ camera trade show in Japan will take place late February, which would give us a better view of the latest traditional camera gear for the first-half of 2016, while the Photokina show in Germany should exhibit products for later in the year.