9 Digital Camera Features: Necessary or Novelty?

The battle for photographic supremacy is being fought on many fronts.

If you care about cameras, you're probably sick of the term "megapixel war" by now. That battle has been quiet for quite some time, but camera manufacturers are always looking for categories in which they can be the first, biggest or best. Here's a list of features that camera manufacturers are currently bragging about along with our verdict on whether or not they actually help you take better pictures.

HD Video Recording

Right Now: When Canon debuted the 5D Mark II and its ability to shoot 1080p video, even the digital video nerds were impressed. In the following weeks, it became apparent that Canon wasn't the only company with HD video on the brain. The HD badge was showing up on DSLRs, compacts and every other camera with enough room in its body for the digital guts.

The Future: The HD video war seems oddly familiar, with manufacturers trying to outdo each other in both pixel count and frame rate. Some can do 1080p, but only at 20 FPS and some can crank out buttery smooth motion at reduced quality. As we move forward, the two will meet in the middle, offering up a variety of resolutions and shooting modes, including the desirable 1080p/24p mode which mimics the look of movies shot on film. There is also much room for improvement in audio recording. Cameras like Nikon's D300s and the Olympus E-P1 are equipped with higher quality stereo mics, but there is still a lot of room for improvement..

Verdict: NECESSARY

Ruggedization

Right Now: Olympus has been making ruggedized compacts for some time, but the tough compact bandwagon is getting increasingly crowded. Underwater shooting is always a plus and there's a great deal of comfort in knowing that one meeting with the pavement isn't going to send your camera to the recycling center.

The Future: In the past, having a ruggedized camera meant sacrificing specs for toughness. But, as the megapixel counts have stabilized and super-slim lenses have gotten much better, so has the image quality. Most cams can handle about a five-foot drop, but hopefully that number will increase. At the same time, we could certainly do without the typical rugged camera look. Give us a normal-looking camera that's truly tough and we'll be happy.

Verdict: NECESSARY

3D

Right Now: Fujifilm generated a fair bit of hype when they announced the FinePix REAL 3D W1. It was the actualization of their 3D technology we saw last year at Photokina. It uses two lenses to make images that appear 3D when viewed on a compatible screen (Fujifilm sells a compatible digital frame) or even prints. 3D TV is also on the rise at the same time, which might be a boon for dual-lens shooters.

The Future: Taking 3D images is getting easier, but looking at them remains the problem. When it doesn't require a special monitor, you need a pair of annoying glasses to get your three-dimensional fix. And we still have a long way to go before we get to the level of Princess Leia's holographic SOS to Obi Wan Kenobi. Right now, we're at ViewMaster status. Luckily, it can only get better from here.

Verdict: NOVELTY (for now)

Built-in Projector

Right Now: When Nikon's S1000pj hits shelves in a few weeks, it will be the only game in town with a built-in projector, so we'll have to wait for the sales numbers to see if this is a feature that people actually want. But, pico projectors are hot in the consumer electronics world and they're being jammed into just about everything, making a camera seem like a no-brainer.

The Future: If this is something people actually want, there is plenty of room to grow in the quality of the projected images. They will quickly get brighter and sharper, but only if they promise to sell.

Verdict: NOVELTY

Image Stabilization

Right Now: Keeping track of image stabilization techniques gets more difficult with each new wave of cameras. Some do it at the sensor and some do it at the lens. Some companies suggest that their high ISO settings also fall under this category (a claim with which we disagree). Ultimately, they're all welcome, because a blurry image won't look good no matter how big, bright or color-accurate it is.

The Future: With all of the proprietary anti-shake systems, the dream of a unified method is unrealistic. But, they have all been getting better, which means easier hand-held shooting and a much-needed rest for the unsharp mask tool in Photoshop. Just be sure not to take the "anti-blur" feature on the box for granted.

Verdict: NECESSARY

Speed of Operation

Right Now: Use a compact digital camera from just a few years ago and the shutter lag might just drive you insane. That infuriating second between the press of the release and the actual capture has thankfully gotten shorter, but many models that fit in your pocket still can't hang with even the cheapest DSLR. Nikon's CoolPix S640 is their fastest cam yet, which claims to operate with the same sense of urgency as the D40.

The Future: We all have visions of cameras that are ready to shoot milliseconds after hitting the on-switch. They show absolutely no lag between shutter press and capture and they can fill up a card with images before running out of buffer space. We're getting closer all the time, so just be patient.

Verdict: NECESSARY

Touchscreens

Right Now: Nikon just released their first all-touchscreen cam, the S70. Sony continues to crank out compact cams that are nearly button free and Samsung's newest models sport large, 3.5-inch touchscreens. No buttons means more room for screen and that means better previews and easier menu navigation.

The Future: While touch navigation is getting common in smaller cameras, DSLRs haven't jumped on-board, even with the rise in live view viewfinders. We wouldn't be too surprised to see touchscreens showing up on lower-level DSLRs in the future.

Verdict: NECESSARY

Optical Zoom

Right Now: While huge megapixel counts might be played out, the race for ridiculous zoom numbers is still as hot as ever. Superzooms regularly crack the 24x mark, making it as high as 26x in the cases of the Nikon P90 and the Olympus sp-590. That's a range of 26-676mm, which means you better be packing a tripod if you're going out to shoot.

The Future: As optics improve, so too does the cap on how ridiculous zoom can get. But, before we make our way up to 30x and beyond, we're hoping the focus will shift to image quality, especially at long focal lengths. We will also see higher zoom numbers as companies become more confident in their image stabilizing technology.

Verdict: NECESSARY (To a point)

Super-Slow-Motion

Right Now: At present, Casio has the super-slow-motion segment on lock. Even their pocket cams, like the EX-FS10 can shoot up to 30 images in a single second. Unfortunately, you'll have to sacrifice a lot of image quality if you're hoping to achieve speeds slow enough for MythBusters -like footage.

The Future: Low light performance is going to be key going forward, since the exposure times on a super-slow-mo shot are so small. But, as image processors get faster, we can actually hope for striking footage that's bigger than a postage stamp when viewed on your monitor.

Verdict: NOVELTY (until we can get more resolution)

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