Today, one of the biggest marketing claims in many imaging products is the promise of “DSLR quality” images. But what exactly does this mean? If you read further, many of these products make this claim almost exclusively based on megapixel count. An undisclosed imaging sensor, an unnamed processor, but a highlighted 20-megapixel readout. Smartphones have notoriously been sold to the public in a very similar fashion – many going so far as to say you can replace your actual camera with your smartphone. The question really becomes, should you?
A History of Bigger Numbers
Back in 1995, my family bought their first computer – a feat given our financial situation and the north of $2000 that was paid for an IBM Aptiva. After some “research,” we opted for the 75MHz Pentium processor version – a respectable processor for its time (and for a family that really didn’t know what they were getting into). Soon after, my life was consumed by reading trade and enthusiast magazines being taught all about processor clock speeds and the never-ending quest for more megahertz in your processor designator – not realizing that a system is only as good as the sum of its parts. Needless to say, I drank the Kool-Aid.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.org
Fast forward a decade or so, and I found the same thing playing again with digital cameras (and more recently with smartphone cameras) only megahertz were replaced by megapixels. Marketing materials from manufacturers, in-store displays (remember those), and salespeople were all training their customers to equate more megapixels with a better-quality image. This was especially true in the early days of consumer digital cameras – why buy a 35mm point-and-shoot film camera when you could buy a 1.3-megapixel Fujifilm FinePix. The future! For the sake of comparison in 2002, the Minolta Dimage 7 won an award for best prosumer digital camera – with a whopping 5 megapixels sensor. For journalistic endeavors, Canon, Nikon, Minolta and others had more traditional SLR-styled body configurations – many adopting the lens mounts of their film counterparts. At the time, the CCD sensors were powerful enough to produce images that could be repurposed and enlarged but film was still king for professionals. Except in marketing cameras to the public.
In 2015 I attended a photography conference where the main topic of discussion was how to turn around a sagging camera market. Many of the major camera manufacturers of the time (Canon and Nikon) were trying to compete the ubiquity of smartphones – they were affordable (mainly due to cell phone carriers’ willingness to cover part of the cost in return for 2-year contracts) and they were pumping out as many if not more megapixels than professional DSLRs. The camera companies had spent a decade teaching their customers that megapixels matter over everything and now they were falling behind because in the minds of their customers, a camera that fits in my pocket is the same as one that hangs around your neck, just cheaper and a better buy.
This brings me to the deluge of products that end up in my social feeds’ promoted posts. I’m not saying that the image at the top is a bad product – I haven’t tested it or used it in any way – but it feels like 1995 all over again. While megapixel count does impact the quality of an image, the camera’s sensor and imaging processor do the bulk of the heavy lifting. The average person scrolling through these posts is largely unaware of how all these items play into the final image, but then again that might be the point. I often worry that this specific kind of over-promising that exists, especially among up-and-coming gadget makers, will only degrade consumer trust and the ability of legit manufactures to innovate.
What people should really consider is that a web camera (or any camera) is part of a system. The sum of that system’s parts will ultimately dictate the quality of the image it produces. What I’m asking for here is two-fold: 1. Consumers should look into these claims and approach them with a large bit of skepticism – especially when a product is light on details. 2. Reviewers should avoid the pitfalls of taking shortcuts for fear that a reader might not understand (it’s your job as a writer to facilitate understanding). There’s no doubt a need for better webcams (my Intel-based MacBook Pro’s camera feels archaic in terms of image quality) but can we please, please get away from meaningless marketing speak like “DSLR quality?”