The list changed about twenty minutes after I picked up my badge. I pulled out my trusty Canon PowerShot SD camera, a point-and-shoot that had been my reliable sidekick for the past three years. I tried to take a photo of the latest watch-phone. The camera lens began to extend, flailed madly for a moment, then the screen went dark except for a few tiny characters in the bottom left corner—E18. I went through the usual electronics fix-it attempts—turn it on and off, pull out the battery—then gave up until I could get online. Later, over dinner, a colleague used his iPhone to search for “Canon E18”. The bad news—this was a common and often fatal failure, so common that several websites are devoted to discussing it and one is taking names for a class action suit. The good news—there are a number of things you can do that sometimes fix it. The bad news—these fixes often don’t work. (They didn’t.)
So I added point-and-shoot cameras to my “check out at CES list,” because I suddenly need a new one.
A few things have changed since the last time I was in the market for a digital camera. I thought the 7.1 megapixels of my Canon, a big step up from the 3.0 of the previous generation, was amazing resolution. Today, the average pocket-sized camera boasts 10.2 megapixels, and that seems to be where the pixel race is stopping (though a few manufacturers have gone to 12.1 megapixels); imaging advances are now coming by increasing the size of the CMOS sensors. Video has improved vastly, from VGA resolution to 720P (progressive scanned) high definition. The screens are bigger.
And the latest cameras have some tempting new features. Casio’s High Speed Exilim EX-FH100 has an impressive 10x optical zoom and a burst mode that records up to 40 frames per second, and either allows you to select the best image from the set or does so automatically. Kodak’s EasyShare cameras let you tag photos or videos when you take them so later, when you attach the camera to your computer, they automatically upload to Facebook or YouTube. Canon’s new PowerShots boast 24 mm wide angle lenses and touch screen controls. Nikon’s CoolPix S1000pj has a built in projector for instant slide shows.
But somewhere along the way, the viewfinders disappeared.
My old Canon had a viewfinder. I used it pretty regularly for shooting outdoors—on the beach, in the snow, and at outdoor press events—since LCDs are notoriously hard to see in bright sunlight. The new cameras, for the most part, do not have viewfinders (I did see a few on some low-end cameras; these viewfinders, however, were so small as to be essentially useless and the other camera features were far back on the curve.) If I want a viewfinder, it seems, I have to go to a digital SLR; which would be nice to own, however, since it doesn’t easily slip into a pocket, I know it would get left behind more often than not.
So I started asking the folks behind the camera displays at CES. Why don’t these new point-and-shoots have viewfinders?
I figured the people representing the manufacturers would try to convince me that I didn’t really need a viewfinder; I was impressed to find out that no one tried that tactic; all were honest in their responses. Essentially, consumers these days judge cameras by the size of their screens, and removing the viewfinder leaves more real estate for the screen.
Representatives from both Canon and Casio told me that current LCD screens, with higher resolutions, do better than previous generations in bright light, but that in some special situations, like on a sunlit beach, the screen image would not be visible.
“There is no way,” a Canon representative told me, "that we or anyone would say that these cameras will always be usable at the beach or in snow, but they have gotten better.”
He suggested that, in my quest for a viewfinder, I might be showing my age. “A viewfinder is old school. The kids don’t even know it’s there.”
Can this problem be solved? A Samsung spokesperson promised me that I’d be impressed with the OLED displays built into some of their point-and-shoot models; that these displays do much better in bright light than the more common LCD. I’m going to check that out. Kodak’s point-and-shoot video camera, the PlaySport, switches its display to sepia or black-and-white in bright light; the representative I spoke with promised me that this would make things better, but, again, not perfect.
I got a little obsessed with the viewfinder thing, so have yet to investigate the other features on my wish list—fast shutter response so I don’t miss half my shots; an easy-to-use interface, since camera interfaces are anything but standard; and a flash-on option for situations in which I need a fill flash. (I don’t need fancy special effects or thousands of preset shooting modes; they’re just too complicated to figure out.) And I’d like this all to cost not a lot more than $200.
Photo: This shot, taken last month with my three-year-old Canon PowerShot SD, would have been impossible to produce without a viewfinder. Credit: Tekla Perry
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.