Anyone shopping for a new compact digital camera today is quickly overwhelmed with features most photographers couldn't even imagine ten years ago. Face detection, blink detection, smile detection, smile shutter, slim mode, and dozens of other "features" designed to convince you that a new camera will help you take better photos. The problem is these features, in my opinion, all basically fall into the same category: useless gimmicks.
Before you get defensive about your new camera with red-eye correction, or accuse me of being an old-fashioned photographer who needs to get with the times, take a moment to hear me out. Almost every compact digital camera maker is adding an ever-increasing number of gimmicks to their cameras that have limited (if any) usefulness. The examples below aren't meant to single out specific manufacturers or technologies as the only ones responsible for this trend: in truth, it seems that every company that makes a compact digicam is guilty of what amounts to consumer misdirection.
Earlier this year Sony received a great deal of press coverage because of their new "Smile Shutter" feature that not only detects faces, but won't allow you to take a photo unless the subject is smiling. What a great concept, right? Wrong. The reality is that some people have to grimace and contort their faces in uncomfortable (almost painful) ways in order for the feature to detect their smile.
The new Fujifilm FinePix Z200fd digital camera comes with a "Couple Timer" mode that detects two faces in a frame and will only release the shutter button as the two faces come closer together. The Couple Timer mode has three settings so users can set the timer to detect faces at various distances, whether they are standing side by side, or cheek-to-cheek. Wonderful idea...until you try to take a photo of a happy couple and your camera won't take the photo because it thinks they aren't close enough to one another, or you have to tell the couple to smash their faces together in order for your camera to capture an image.
I wouldn't mind any of these features if compact digital cameras already did a fantastic job in all other core areas – white balance, metering, lens quality, ergonomics, image sensor quality, shutter lag, auto focus speed, and so on. The problem is that virtually every compact camera on the market suffers from obvious problems in the areas listed above. All of the core areas I've mentioned have a far greater impact on image quality and your ability to capture a perfect moment than whether your camera can automatically take shots of smiling subjects or people standing close together.
I can't escape the feeling that every camera company wants you to focus on these pointless features (and whether or not your camera has them) rather than the serious limitations of their cameras. The reason that so many casual shutterbugs have been buying entry-level DSLRs obviously has nothing to do with face detection or couple timers: it's because compact digital cameras as a class tend to have poor ISO performance, noticeable shutter lag, and painfully slow auto focus, comparatively. Soccer moms and football dads need cameras that can focus quickly, shoot quickly, and produce clean images for prints and online galleries, whether it's for a photo of a kid learning to walk in a dimly lit room or a photo of a kid scoring his or her first goal at dusk on the soccer field. Even with the improvements of the last few years, the unspoken truth is that most compact digital cameras still have serious difficulty taking these types of photos.
The obvious answer is to not waste any more time developing technologies for compact digital cameras that sound good but often prove completely useless. The answer is to improve the basic performance of compact digital cameras.
Round Up is a regular editorial column published twice weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.