New Trends in Digital Cameras

Cameras, lenses, and photo accessories have never been big been news at CES.

Yet camera manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, and Sony have always set up mammoth booths, which generally feature elaborate displays of camera bodies and every imaginable type of lens—from super wide-angle 14mm fish-eye lenses to bazooka-style 800-mm telephoto lenses that cost more than some cars.

They also have notable photographers talking about how to shoot great nature, editorial, or fashion images.

Of course, what have stolen much of the thunder of stand-alone digital cameras are smartphones, which continue to eat away at the camera market, particularly point-and-shoots.

More From Consumer Reports

Gone are the days when Canon or Nikon would introduce 10 point-and-shoots at this time of year. In fact, before the age of the iPhone, camera manufacturers had their own trade show, the PMA.

In recent years, the decline has been dramatic: Introductions of new cameras from the top five camera makers—Canon, Nikon, Sony, FujiFilm, Olympus—have declined 55 percent since 2012.

Nevertheless, camera companies are still innovating. And they’re introducing some really intriguing cameras.

For example, in the past few years, we’ve seen incredible, albeit pricey, advanced point-and-shoots, like Nikon’s P900, which sports a superlong 83x optical zoom lens, and Sony’s RX-series camera, which captures stellar low-light images that rival those shot with SLRs.

Camera makers also continue to tweak waterproof-and-rugged point-and-shoots. And mirrorless cameras—small, interchangeable lens cameras with the quality and versatility of SLRs—remain one of the few relatively bright spots in camera sales.

Here are some of the trends we expect to see this year at CES:

1. 4K Video for the Masses

Some camera manufacturers were quicker to embrace 4K video in their camera bodies than others, but at this point, most have a least one or two models that can shoot in this higher resolution.

Panasonic was an early leader, with its flagship Lumix GH4 mirrorless camera, which could capture 4K-resolution video in various frame rates (24p, 25p, 30p).

In the advanced point-and-shoot market, Sony’s RX-series cameras, like the RX100 Mark V, also captures 4K but provides additional video features, such as the ability to capture slow-motion video, that previously were found only on very pricey, high-end camcorders. And the RX100’s very wide, f/1.8-2.8 lens lets you capture video with a shallow depth of field, another feature found only on high-end camcorders.

Additionally, all camera companies are beefing up their image-stabilization systems to provide jitter-free video and better sharpness on still photos.

2. Focus a Photo After the Fact

The Lytro camera, a light-field camera that came out several years ago but has since been discontinued, included a remarkable feature: It let you adjust a photo's focus after you've shot it.

No product like it has appeared on the market since then, but Panasonic introduced the ability to refocus an image after the fact on a few cameras a couple of years ago.

The feature is called Post Focus, which in actuality functions as a bracketing feature. Once you turn on the feature, the camera fires off a burst of 8-megapixel images at 30 frames per second. (The reason for the lower megapixel size is that the cameras are using their 4K video mode.)

During this 1-second burst, the camera focuses on various focal points, from the back of the scene to the front, and captures 30 almost identical shots—the only difference is that they have different points of focus. Later, when you refocus the image, you're really choosing one of those many photos. We think other camera manufacturers will start offering a similar feature.

3. Simpler Camera Apps

Because most people are capturing photos and video on their smartphones, it's no surprise that developers are creating powerful mobile photography apps.

Though you can still find complicated, feature-rich apps, of course, two recent examples stand out for their simple interface: Google’s PhotoScan app, which turns your smartphone into a genuine photo scanner, and Prisma, which transforms any photo in a graphic-novel, comic book-style image.

4. Improvements in 360-degree Cameras

They're not quite traditional cameras, but 360-degree cameras are having their moment, in part because of the increased interest in virtual reality.

For now, not all 360-cameras are compatible with all mobile devices, and the video formats remain kind of clunky.

For example, you can capture 360-degree video on a Samsung Gear 360, which will store clips on a microSD card. But unlike a traditional digital camera, you can’t just transfer the raw video files and expect to play them on your computer. Nor can you upload them directly to YouTube.

You first have to use an app or software to process them. And if you want to view what you’re shooting, you have to pair the camera with a Samsung smartphone.

Other 360-degree cameras are available, notably those from Ricoh, Nikon, and Kodak, and we think 360 will continue to expand as VR gets more mainstream.

Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.