According to dpreview.com's "Timeline" (a valuable historical record, by the way), the very last 3-megapixel camera introduced to public sale was the 3.3-MP Kodak EasyShare C300, in February of 2005. And that was a downmarket point-and-shoot aimed at the mass market.
That was more than four years ago now. In the meantime, chip architecture, processing, and camera features have all improved. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if a camera manufacturer were to make a really good 3-MP pocket camera now—one that had every feature professional photographers need: a fast frame-rate, raw capability, robust throughput, excellent low-light sensitivity, razor-sharp responsiveness, and an excellent viewfinder and lens(es).
Whoa, back up, back up, I hear you saying. Isn't 3 megapixels on the dust-heap of history for a reason? What in the world would I need a 3-MP camera for, anyway?
For the web, of course.
One things about digital photography hobbyists that consistently amazes me (there are several, but let's leave the others for another time) is the importance of the megapixel race to marketing on the one hand, and the number of people who say they never make prints on the other. Briefly put, if a digital photographer never make prints, what in the world does he need a lot of megapixels for?
In Kirk Tuck's April 5 essay "A Tourist In Your Own Town," he makes the case that sooner or later, and probably sooner, print advertising is going to go the way of film. Ads will be visual on video and electronic on the web and handheld devices. "According to Ad Age, Adweek and the Wall Street Journal, the relentless march of advertising to the web has accelerated at a rapid clip during the last year," Kirk writes. "We are on the cusp of print advertising capitulating to digital. In a year or two the remaining traditional magazines will sit on lonely shelves and many of their trusty brethren will have been consigned to webmag* status. As photographers we have to understand that mastery of image files and the ability to summon tons of megapixels into the fray will no longer be effective barriers to entry to our field."
Is he right? I don't know. My crystal ball just refracts the light around it, instead of predicting the future.
But what will professional photographers most need if that particular tipping point tips? One day, it could well be a camera that appears to be an absurdity right now: a really good camera with enough megapixels for the web, and no more.
(Thanks to Jose Luis Gonzalez)
Featured Comment by Stephen Gillette: "I was shocked to see this post, as I had muttered to myself this morning that what would intrigue me would be a good 3MP camera! No lie! This very morning!
"You see, I've been trying to remember on those occasions where I don't have a camera that I DO have one: my Sony Ericsson cell phone sports a 2MP digicam that takes much better pictures than it has any right to. And the depth of field is, due to the tiny lens, amazing. (Fixed-focus, of course.)
"So I'm thinking, this very morning, since the Sony 2MP files are good for about 5 x 7" at 240ppi, hey: 3MP would get close enough to 8 x 10" for me. And most others, I suspect.
"How about some big fat photo sites on the sensor? So that ISO 800 (or better) is a real deal? And a cool, retro look? All to fit in a pocket—any pocket, including shirt pocket, with no bulge? And how about under $100?"
Featured Comment by Colin Work: "The case for a 3mp camera only makes sense if it a) reduces costs or b) produces better quality images.
"With regard to a) as I understand it the number of pixels on a sensor is not a significant factor—putting 3 MP on a sensor currently used for 12 MP is not going to make it much, if at all cheaper. Indeed, if this results in lower production runs, both sensors could end up being more expensive.
"In all other respects this camera will be no different in costs to the same level of camera with more pixels. So the manufacturer ends up offering a camera with a lower spec for the same(ish) price as a model with a higher spec. I think the marketing folk will struggle with that one.
"As to quality—it is quite possible that a 3-MP camera with huge pixel sites could offer significant improvements in dynamic range and high ISO performance...but frankly, if the output of this camera is intended for the web, what does it matter—will anyone even notice a difference on their LCD/iPod/8bit rgb imaging device?
"No, while I agree that the pixel race has gone far to far, I think 3 MP is too small. Like others, I think 6 MP is the optimum for such a camera—enough for the majority of print applications (personal and commercial), but few enough to allow for significantly faster processing and potential gains in quality."
Featured Comment by Ctein: "Putting the emphasis on the words 'really good,' I've seen proof of principle. Years ago, Kodak called me on the phone and said, 'We want you to come to a private preview; we finally have a digital camera that we think you'll like. And it's only two megapixels.' They showed me the DCS 520, and I was stunned. They said it used a non-standard filter array and very clever image processing. I was never given any of the details nor information to confirm that. But the photographs I saw amazed me.
"Entirely decent quality in 8x10s, with a resolution that indicated they were approaching 100% effectiveness (and don't ask me how they pulled that off). Put another way, they were getting resolution out of a two megapixel camera that your typical camera would require five megapixels to achieve.
"Tonality, color, gradation, all were fine. The photos were free from jaggies or artifacts, moire, and contouring. The photographs were also technically difficult ones from an image processing point of view. They weren't trying to make the camera look good; they were showing off how good it was.
"I have no doubt that a camera with that degree of sophistication in how it did imaging, combined with ten years more technology and 50% more pixels, would make most photographers very, very happy.
"I'm not holding my breath for it."