Two days ago Canon announced the next revision of their popular Digital Rebel line, the ::amazon(“B001XURPQI”,”Canon EOS Digital Rebel T1i”)::, a.k.a. the Canon 500D. Briefly speaking, it offers 15 megapixels, 720i and 1080p video at 30 and 20 fps respectively, and pretty much all the other recent Canon body features (LiveView, dust reduction) as well. ISOs 100-3200 are offered by default, with expanded settings of H1 (about 6400) and H2 (about 12800) available if enabled, the sample images I’ve seen so far are quite impressive. It’s due to ship in May. Very impressive for the new “low end” of the Canon line, this leads me to talk about what I perceive as a narrowing of the DSLR market.

See, as I look at the top of the DSLR line, or even the ::amazon(“B001G5ZTLS”, “prosumer 5D2”)::, I see cameras with, save for the video, fairly similar specifications. There are differences, of course, and we’ll get to those, but the days where we were paying up for a lot of resolution are over, now paying three times as much money for a camera body ($800 vs. $2500 will only net you about a 20% increase resolution in each dimension, an ability to make as good a 36×24 as you would otherwise be able to make at 30×20. And you can pay three times as much as that for a ::amazon(“B000V5LX00″,”1Ds Mark III”)::, and get essentially identical image quality.

Now, I don’t think the market for the 1Ds Mark III is going away, but I do think it’s going to shrink, and it’s not because it isn’t a great camera, it is a great camera. But the technology and economics of sensor fabrication seem to have reached a knee where it’s far more costly to secure substantial resolution increases. Moreover, sensor resolution has reached a point where they outresolve all but a few select lenses, and even with the right lenses, fewer and fewer scenes can be imaged successfully at that resolution, requiring so much depth-of-field that the small aperture reduces optical resolution through diffraction loss.

While in theory full-frame sensors should offer better high-ISO performance than their reduced-frame brethren, the differences don’t seem that large. The major manufacturers have addressed the need for wide-angle lenses for reduced-frame cameras. The differences just aren’t that large, not anymore.

A few people will have good reason to pay up for higher-end models. Sports and wildlife shooters will still need faster AF. Photojournalists and nature photographers want (and sometimes get) good weather sealing. But in terms of technical image quality, the difference between high-end and low-end DSLRs from the same manufacturer seems to get smaller every year.

If I’m right, this doesn’t have to be a loss for the camera manufacturers. Dedicated photographers will still have money to put towards technical image quality, and “good glass” is still an excellent place to invest to accomplish that, so long as Canon and Nikon recognize and market their products with an eye to this change in the photographic landscape. We’re seeing the beginning of that with Canon and Nikon both having new products in their tilt/shift lines and wide-angle primes, but I predict, and hope, we’ll see more of that in 2009 and 2010.

It should be exciting.

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