New year, new gear — so, what does camera technology have in store for us in 2018? Features like 4K video, wireless connectivity, and high megapixel counts are now the norm, while traditional point-and-shoots have differentiated into just three categories — superzoom, large-sensor compact, or waterproof — with smartphones accounting for the larger part of the casual photography market. In truth, today’s cameras already offer a dizzying array of features and performance, so where do they go from here? After speaking with industry analysts and peers, scouring through update schedules, reviewing patents, and making educated guesses, we have created a list of the consumer camera tech trends to watch out for in 2018, as well as a wishlist of things we would like to see.
Fewer launches, but better products
Last year, the number of new cameras introduced into the market fell by 39 percent compared to the year before, leaving just 35 new cameras hitting the market, according to data from Gap Intelligence. While the number of new cameras is falling, the focus is now on higher-end models. This is evidenced at the recent CES Show, which traditionally has been a venue for new point-and-shoot cameras; the traditional camera industry barely made a peep at the 2018 convention. A drop in low-cost point-and-shoot cameras is bringing the total number of new products down, but as several companies focus more on the higher-end market, that drop is balanced by more pro and enthusiast level options.
“I’ve seen a big reduction in launches to really focus on what matters.”
“The camera industry is more free than it has been because we don’t have to worry about the small point-and-shoot,” said Scott Peterson, a senior analyst at Gap Intelligence who covers the photography sector. “I’ve seen a big reduction in launches to really focus on what matters.”
While budget point-and-shoots have largely been replaced by smartphones, the category hasn’t gone away completely. Compact, fixed-lens cameras that offer big zoom ranges, larger sensors, and ruggedized builds still have their place, and we’ll continue to see them from camera makers.
Handheld camcorders have also experienced a drop and will continue to do so, but the category has been rescued by the rise of the still-nascent 360 category. Of the 74 new camcorder models announced in 2017 (just three more than in 2016), 360-degree cameras accounted for 22 percent. The number of new action cameras have also increased.
Better video through software
While some brands are shifting their focus to the higher-margin enthusiast and professional markets with better sensors and faster processors, others are steering innovation in the direction of software. If 4K is available, why not allow for 1080p crops that mimic professional video motion effects? If 360-degree cameras can capture an immersive view, why not let users crop to a standard fixed-perspective while following the action as if the camera were mounted on a motorized gimbal?
In fact, both features already exist. The new Panasonic Lumix GH5S can add motion to a 1080p crop of 4K video, and GoPro’s official launch of OverCapture for the Fusion 360 camera adds powerful tools for crafting a cinematic masterpiece from spherical video. Building a software-first camera was also the approach taken by Rylo, the startup behind the consumser-focused 360 video camera of the same name that offers OverCapture-like editing to an even friendlier price point. Hardware limitations be damned.
Some of the biggest camera launches in 2017 boasted big speed improvements — a trend we expect to continue into 2018. Last year, the Sony A9 showcased how mirrorless cameras can now offer speed advantages for sports and wildlife photography, shooting up to 20 frames per second with no viewfinder blackout. The Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III combined high resolution and fast shooting speeds, responding to one of the few complaints about their predecessors.
Camera speed is about more than just frames per second, however. For video, the electronic rolling shutter on today’s CMOS cameras can distort the image when there’s too much motion, either on the part of the camera or the subject. Global shutters prevent blur from fast moving subjects but have been cost prohibitive to implement in the consumer market. Fortunately, new research and development may lead to a cost effective solution to this problem. Canon published research on new global shutters in 2016, which could eliminate the phenomenon from DSLRs with CMOS sensors. Sony, meanwhile, introduced four new compact sensors with global shutters last year; while they are for industrial applications, we could see them trickle over to the consumer front.
Enhanced image quality — but not necessarily in the megapixels
Megapixels were once the defining metric of a digital camera, but consumers are realizing that there’s more to image quality than just packing as many photoreceptors as possible onto a sensor. In fact, the first major camera launch of the year, the Panasonic GH5S, cuts the megapixels in half in order to enhance low-light video performance. Nikon made a similar move with the D7500, dropping form 24 to 20MP to improve high ISO performance and increase speed, simultaneously.
Sony’s stacked sensor technology, once reserved for smaller 1-inch-type sensors in advanced point-and-shoots, made its way to full-frame cameras last year. Back-illuminated sensors, which offer improved low-light performance, also gained new ground in the professional market with the Nikon D850. Panasonic has previously published research into sensors capable of capturing a wide dynamic range, for example, which is one of the few areas where the smaller Micro Four Thirds format still lags behind its APS-C and full-frame peers. Technology like organic sensors has now been in the research pool for several years, and while there’s no sure sign 2018 will bring a consumer version, we wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see them surface, considering the first organic sensor was made five years ago.
Brands and overdue updates
Camera brands are carving out their own way to stand out in the market — so where will individual brands be headed in 2018? We looked at last year’s launches and the usual release schedule to guess what some of the top camera brands may have in store this year.
While Canon’s higher-end models come equipped with 4K video, the camera giant is the only one without a 4K model at the consumer price point, data from Gap Intelligence suggests. Even Canon has admitted to lagging behind in 4K, citing the need for more growth in the 4K TV market as well as advances in the ability to prevent cameras from overheating while recording large amounts of data. We’re hoping to see 4K from Canon start trickling down to their more affordable cameras.
Due for an update: Canon has strayed from its usual update schedule for the last year. The EOS 7D Mark II is going on four years old, while younger models like the EOS 80D and even the Rebel T7i have newer sensors and better technology. The mirrorless EOS M5 will turn two in September, and given how quickly mirrorless cameras are innovating, a replacement seems likely if Canon wants to stay in the game.
Sony’s full-frame mirrorless line targeted the professional photographer and the company has only continued to push that idea with more high-end features. Sony brought faster speed, higher resolution, and high-tech perks like a no blackout viewfinder last year. As the brand to watch for innovations, we expect Sony will have plenty of worth announcements this year.
Due for an update: The A7R Mark III may be fresh on our minds, but the A7 Mark II will turn four by the end of the year, making Sony’s entry-level full-frame camera due for a replacement. The low-light specialist A7S Mark II may also see an update, as that camera will turn three in September.
Nikon is in the midst of a restructuring where the camera giant has already said it’d focus on high-end cameras — the D850 is an excellent example of this, although it is still difficult to find in stock. This year also marks the longest time the company, which is marking 100 years, has gone without a new mirrorless camera since first launching the Nikon 1 line in 2011. While the company is rumored to be working on a full-frame mirrorless model, those rumors have been going on for years and there’s no sure sign that 2018 will be the year they are finally proved true. However, an executive has acknowledged that such a camera exists, so fingers crossed.
Due for an update: Nikon could be updating its lower-priced full-frame cameras this year — the Nikon D750 is nearly four years old, while the D610 was released way back in 2013. We really hope these budget-friendly full-frame models will see a refresh. The entry-level D3400 DSLR also turns two this year, and Nikon’s popular P900 83x zoom camera turns three in a few months.
Fujifilm is seeing a lot of success with its Instax instant film line as well as the mirrorless X-series lineup. Fujifilm tends to make new features available to older cameras when possible with firmware updates, so we expect to see both some new cameras and new features for older models.
Due for an update: It’s possible that 2018 will see a new flagship from Fujifilm, since both the current X-T2 and X-Pro2 launched in 2016. We wouldn’t expect anything until later in the year if that’s the case. The budget-friendly X-A3 and X70 compact also turn two this year. The XP waterproof series tends to see annual updates, so a new model wouldn’t be a surprise here.
Panasonic continues to do well at making cameras that are suitable for both video and stills, and we see no reason for the company to change directions now.
Due for an update: Panasonic just updated its higher-end mirrorless options, but the more affordable G85 turns two years old this year. 2018 could also be an update year for Panasonic’s excellent zoom camera, the FZ2500, and the large sensor compact LX10, both also turning two at the end of the year.
Both Olympus and Panasonic use the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor — Panasonic is enticing users to the format with video features, while Olympus is doing that with stabilization and high-resolution photo modes. We wouldn’t be surprised to see newer features along those lines.
Due for an update: The flagship Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II launched in 2016, but we doubt it will be updated until the midrange E-M5 Mark II, going on three years old, gets a Mark III revision. The E-M5 and E-M1-series tend to leapfrog each other, and the E-M5 looks primed to jump.
GoPro, the market share leader for action cams, has had a rough few years and already announced dropping out of the drone game in 2018. But, its action cameras are still selling well. Based on that and comments from the CEO, Nick Woodman, we expect the company to focus on action cameras and the software for them, rather than experimenting in a competitive category, like it did with the Karma drone.
Due for an update: GoPro has now switched to an annual update schedule, so an update to the Hero6 is expected. Woodman, during CES 2018 press briefing, told us a new camera is in the works for early 2018, and we believe it’s likely a replacement for the entry-level Hero Session. The GoPro Fusion 360 camera is also selling well, according to GoPro, but being that it’s only a couple months old as of this writing, we aren’t sure if we’ll see a new 360 camera this year.
The Digital Trends Wishlist
While today’s digital cameras are more refined than ever, there’s still room for new features or improvements. Here’s ours for 2018.
- Better wireless connectivity. Many cameras’ built-in Wi-Fi systems aren’t very reliable and their app designs not very user-friendly. Some models have adopted always-on Bluetooth LE, but it hasn’t really delivered on its promise. We’d love to see faster, more reliable connections and better apps in the future.
- More no-blackout viewfinders. Sony’s no-blackout viewfinder in the A9 is giving the mirrorless platform an edge over DSLRs, and we’d love to see the tech in more models.
- Better menus. Despite many cameras moving to a touchscreen, menu navigation largely hasn’t changed, but could use some cleanup for faster access to features.
- Better dynamic range in smaller sensors. Full-frame and even APS-C cameras can capture a wide range of detail from highlights to shadow, but smaller sensors (we’re looking at you, Micro Four Thirds) still lag behind. We’d rather see improvements here than in resolution.
The camera industry may not be pumping out as many new products as it used to, but if the trend continues in the direction of fewer, but better releases, we won’t complain.
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