Canon redefines convergence with HD capable digital cameras

By Robin Rowland, CBCNews.ca

When Canon began a series of teaser ads two weeks ago (just before Sony launched the new A900), the company was using the catch phrase “Destined Evolution.”

The new Canon EOS 5D Mark II is a big step in the evolution of the still camera, but the camera unveiled today is more a case of selective breeding than natural selection, for the new Canon is the first professional-level digital single lens reflex that will also shoot High Definition video. Canon has redefined convergence.

Canon is calling the EOS 5D Mark II the first “compact full frame” DSLR. The camera has a 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, matching the EOS 1Ds Mark III, and can shoot 3.9 frames per second on high speed mode.

But that’s not all. Canon is also viewing the non-professional market with a point and shoot, The PowerShot SX1 IS, which has the ability to shoot both HD video and 10 megapixel stills. The Powershot point and shoot lens is a 20 x optical zoom with the 35mm equivalent of 28mm to 560mm. The 5D Mark II, of course, takes Canon’s SLR lenses.

The 5D captures video at 1,920-by-1,080 pixels at 30 frames per second, the full High Definition standard in MPEG4.

So what is Canon up to?

The 5D Mark II is aimed at two distinct markets, a strategy that has kept Canon ahead of its rivals for the past couple of years.

All camera companies are looking to the time just a few months from now when High Definition becomes the legally defined television standard in the United States, and is therefore adopted around the world. Until the consumer begins buying HD TV sets in large numbers there is no real market for an HD capable consumer camera. The “early adopters” that tech companies love will certainly be the first consumers to grab the HD-capable camera to play back on their HD televisions, and the rest of the market will wait until it is time to replace their existing cameras.

Canon has been using the North American newspaper as the test market for “dual use” video cameras for the past several years. Now it has added a still camera to the lineup.

Canon is already established as the camera system of choice for many photojournalists. When the newspapers, looking at declining circulation and slow growth on websites, began adding video to their websites, Canon began to aggressively sell its HD video cameras to its existing still-camera customers. Newspaper photographers around the world are now carrying Canon HV20 HD cameras that also have the ability to capture stills to a memory card.

Cameras such as the HV20 also appeal to budget-conscious newspaper managers who imagine a world where they can send a photographer out to capture both stills and video at the same time.

So it comes down to a question of priorities. An HD video camera like the HV20 doesn’t really make a good still camera, it’s roughly the equivalent of a 3-megapixel camera. The 5D Mark II (suggested price $2,699 US, body only) is a professional still camera but has limitations as a video camera. The shutter speeds is locked between between 1/30 and 1/125 of a second to get 30 frames per second video standard, and according to early reports, the ability to manipulate the 5D aperture is limited in video mode, so it doesn’t have full flexibility of a good video camera.

The 5D Mark II comes with a built-in microphone, like many modern digital cameras, but also comes with a microphone jack to record better-quality sound.

The dual-use technology has still not been perfected. Most dual-use video cameras on the market today require the user to switch between video and still mode. The Canon cameras allow you to capture a video still, but at the cost of briefly interrupting the video sequence, something a good videojournalist wouldn’t want to do.

The problem with multitasking in this way of course, is that even the best photographers can’t do both well, shooting video and shooting stills are different skills.

A year from now, as HD television sets become more common, Canon, Sony and Nikon and the other manufacturers will be taking the next step in the evolution of the convergence camera and some of the problems of the new breed will be fixed.

Dual use cameras will appeal to a consumer who wants to shoot both still pictures and an HD home movie. It is likely that newspapers and broadcasters (especially those broadcasters with extensive websites) will adopt a dual-use camera as “carry everywhere” or “grab and run” camera for news coverage.

But cameras that are a ‘jack of all trades, master of none” won’t satisfy everyone and so it is likely we will still see high-end still and video cameras doing what they’re good at for years to come, rather a single “convergence camera” in everyone’s hands.

Of note:

  • Canon also announced a similar model the PowerShot SX10 IS that has the features of the SX1 1S that shoots VGA rather than HD, and there are unconfirmed reports that the SX1 1S will not be sold in North America.
  • Nikon introduced its D90 in August, 2008 which it is marketing as an HD capable camera but it is actually near-HDTV, 1,280-by-720 pixels rather than full 1,920-by-1,080 full HD in the Canon.