Having asked the two questions in the post "A Seasonal Game," below, and gotten so very many replies (136 as I write this), I thought I'd take the time to give my own answers.
I've thought about the first question for a full day now without coming up with anything much. True, if my circumstances were different I'd do some broad upgrading; but I can't really complain about what I have. I've always had rather minimal equipment (if I were forced to list my equipment in my signature file I'd be hooted off many a forum) and by my usual standards I've got an embarrassment of riches now. I thought of asking for double the number of readers I have on this site, but that's just greedy: I have great readers now, and lots of them, and I'm appreciative as can be for every one of you. I buy a few nice books for my collection every year, so I'm not in arrears in that enterprise.
So I think the answer for me would be: a new bookcase. That's the
best I can come up with. Strange to say it out loud, but my
bookcases are stuffed, and enough photo books are so oversized that
they need special care and feeding. Not very exciting, but that's my
Before Christmas, Thanksgiving
As for what I wish were made, I should preface any wish-list with gratefulness. We need to look back every now and then and reflect on just how far we've come. The photography marketplace was a sleepy, mature, saturated backwater twenty years ago and has now shifted to a vibrant, volatile cauldron of enterprise and R&D with a cascade of new technologies and wondrous products—mainly in just the last decade or so. There have been huge casualties, but there has also been enormous and amazing progress. For digital cameras to have so deeply supplanted film even at the highest reaches of the craft in such a short time is phenomenal, and the progress in things like scanners and printers and memory cards has kept pace.
I'm especially grateful for the range of excellent pigment printers, papers, and inks with their extraordinary longevity—these are crucial products and we're so very lucky that the peculiar combination of conditions existed that led to their development.
We have also gotten what we've asked for in many cases. I've been observing this field closely since I became editor of Photo Techniques in 1994, and I've paid attention when photographers have set out their most urgent wants. I recall very well the transitory eras in which our most pressing needs were, say, an affordable 6 MP DSLR, or high ISO performance good enough to compete with fast films, or better responsiveness in digital cameras, or decent digital output that didn't cost a fortune, or software to cope with RAW workflows, and so forth. One after another, we've gotten all these things, and more.
At any rate, we're in the middle of a Renaissance, no question, and we should reflect on our great good fortune every now and then, amidst all the clamoring of "Please, Sir, may I have some more?"
That said, in no particular order, here's what I'm waiting for, or what I wish the photo industry would provide, in ascending order of importance to me:
4. Sensors with higher DR and more graceful highlight clipping. This is getting better all the time, but, so far, only gradually; in particular, Fuji has addressed the problem at the chip level, albeit with somewhat mixed success. I hear tell that $25,000 digital backs have 14 stops of dynamic range...sounds nice. Not that I'd know.
3. Luminance-only sensors. The day will come when cameras will be cheap enough and the niche will be large enough to support at least one fabricator making a sensor not filtered for colors. All sensors start out being pure luminance (i.e., black and white) only—and the potential advantages of leaving one that way are alluring: greater resolution for any given pixel count and, perhaps, less need for anti-aliasing filters. The methodological and aesthetic advantages for photographers who want to work in monochrome will be equally significant. This is going to happen someday, but the "when" part is still tantalizing some of us. (Rumor has it that Leica was making progress down this road until the new management put the kibosh on it.)
2. More prime (single-focal-length) lenses. I'm beginning to think that this is partly a generational phenomenon, like the baby boomers' passion for stereo hi-fi systems. When I was younger, zooms were not only second-class citizens, but many of the best and most serious cameras either couldn't be fitted with zooms or only had one or two token entries in the category: that included rangefinder cameras such as the Leica M, medium format systems like Hasselblad and Bronica (which did have a zoom or two, just not very practical ones), and view cameras. Gradually, the huge amateur and hobbyist market's preference for zooms in 35mm systems led to their continuing development and to the high level of accomplishment we enjoy in the product category today. But the public's love affair with zooms is apparently so overwhelming that manufacturers are not even interested in providing prime lenses for those who prefer, or desire, or need them [Note: Pentax excepted], and this is restricting consumer choice for a certain subset of serious photographers. It's a worrisome trend in my opinion, and can be thought of as perhaps the opposite of the situation where pigment printers were concerned. In that product category, the stars aligned just so, at just the right time, to cause the products we really needed to be brought to market. In the case of prime lenses, conditions are conspiring against them.
1. Of course, the single most pressing need I see in the entire field of digital photography is for something a great many of you mentioned as your own top wish: a couple of choices in a large-sensor digicam. A considerable while ago now, Sigma looked like it was going to take the lead by announcing the DP-1, a compact APS-C sensor camera with a fixed 28mm-e ƒ/4 lens. I was worried at the time that too much would be riding on the specific choices made by Sigma for that camera's specs, and that the fickle buying public might doom the emerging category for some trivial reason, like the idea that the lens was too slow or something. (I understand this; enticing as the DP-1 looks to be, a more moderate lens angle, a faster lens speed, and, especially, sensor IS would be high among my own desires for such a camera.) But the DP-1 has, since then, sailed past its various proposed ship dates, and appears in danger of not making it to market at all—a development which is more disconcerting still.
The manufacturers have unilaterally decided not to support this category, and this is a serious problem for a minority of people in the marketplace who are real photographers—although, again, only for a certain subset of us. The fact is that not all pros and artists use, need, or want "blatant" cameras—big, obvious, high-powered pro cameras. Street photographers and photojournalist-style artists need something stealthier and more discreet, but that doesn't sacrifice image quality. For the time being we're relegated to entry-level DSLRs or the better small-sensor digicams, neither of which are more than inadequate stopgap substitutes for what we really need.
Most photographic products have essentially always been made for consumers. Even in the case of overtly "pro" cameras, the payoff for the makers is sales to aspirational (and wealthy) amateurs (traditionally thought to account for about half of pro camera sales, although the percentage might well be higher for the "pro" digital SLRs) and PR visibility (Nikon in particular traded on its reputation as the "professional's choice" for many years, with a beneficial trickle-down effect). Actual picture-producing photographers have simply had to go along for the ride, carried along on the coattails of what the larger market deigns to provide. But what happens when a real need is left unaddressed? Then, photography as a whole is the poorer. That's the situation we're currently facing with the lack of large-sensor compacts.
This has turned from an idle hope, to a pressing need, to a crying shame. The situation is deplorable, and increasingly urgent. I truly hope it will be addressed soon. And successfully, too, so that a new category is created and established—a category that is not represented by just one particular product, and that's robust enough that it won't be in danger of going away again on a whim or a bad-luck streak.
Nikons to come
But having written this little laundry list I can see I've failed to address the question—by saying too much about too many things but leaving out my actual specific and direct answer, like a political candidate.
So I'll close by saying that the product I'm currently most eager to have appear is a Nikon competitor to the Canon 5D. Nikon's new D3 will compete with Canon's star-crossed 1D Mk. III, going it one better in several regards. But I'm eager to see an FX-sensor Nikon that is spec'd lower than the D3 in every regard except image quality, in a more reasonably-sized and -priced body. Canon did this with the 5D, and has proven with the 5D that the market for such a camera is a good, solid niche. The Canon 5D is a far more important product for real photographers than its market share indicates.
From all appearances, it looks like the D3 sensor is going to prove too good to be restricted just to the D3. I expect the D3 will have to be on the market all by itself for at least eight months before such a 5D-fighter could appear, to prevent the latter from poaching D3 sales. But assuming it's en route, which seems a fair guess, it's going to be a honey when it gets here, next fall or in early in 2009. (I sure hope it includes sensor IS—come on, Nikon.) In any event, I can't wait.
Featured Comment by Eamon Hickey: "Just seconding your comments on the lack of a large-sensor digicam/small decisive moment camera, whatever you want to call it. At this stage of the game, it's appalling. It makes me angry at the camera companies.
"I remember pressing the idea of such a camera on a friend who was then head of DSLR marketing for one of the big 2 way back in 2001. I knew his company wouldn't make one, and I didn't think anyone else would either for at least a couple of years, but I would have been amazed to know that, with 2008 nigh upon us, we still—really guys, still?—don't have one.
"I had thought myself inured to photo industry lameness, but this one really rankles."