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The Rise of the Consumer Electronics Prosumer

By Patrick Nelson
Feb 11, 2013 5:00 AM PT

The smartphone processor with its in-built camera chip is driving a resurgence of interest in the art of photography. Just look at the Instagram app user numbers -- about 80 million at last count, according to publisher Burbn's blurb in iTunes.

The Rise of the Consumer Electronics Prosumer

There's a problem, though. Today, the smartphone can't provide the image quality of a dedicated camera. This is simply due to image sensor size and lens quality. The sensor -- the chip used to capture the image -- is physically too small in a smartphone, and the quality of lens can't match the glass in a dedicated camera.

New Genre

For those who've caught the photography bug, a one-step upgrade to point-and-shoot may not cut it, because most point-and-shoots don't have the full gamut of camera settings that are needed to fully explore the hobby. This includes a RAW image capture setting -- a kind of photographic negative needed for advanced post processing -- and manual aperture and exposure adjustments.

A professional rig can be out of the question based on cost alone. So, here's the answer for next-stage enthusiasts. It's go "Prosumer."

"As smartphones become more prevalent, the photo enthusiast, or prosumer, market becomes very important," said John Carlson, senior manager of marketing at Pentax Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation.

Prosumer is a relatively new genre of camera. It's a mix of professional and consumer camera that brings larger sensor, good glass, manual settings and other features to the table along with a price-point achievable for those who aren't commercially supporting their art.

Pentax's Robust MX-1

Pentax is one company that strives to offer features and functions that smartphones cannot through features like weather resistance.

Pentax's prosumer offerings include waterproof compacts such as the WG-2, (about US$199 at Amazon), dustproof and waterproof to 40 feet, to weather-resistant DSLR bodies such as the K-30 ($1029 at Amazon), Carlson told TechNewsWorld.

"It also includes high-end compact cameras like our MX-1, that while still portable, offer significantly higher quality images than smartphones," he pointed out.

The MX-1 is upcoming at a suggested retail price of $499.

"Most importantly, the interchangeable lens camera category combines more image capture control and a wide selection of lenses to achieve the photographer's creative intentions," Carlson said.

Fujifilms' E1

Fujifilm is another camera maker embracing the prosumer genre.

Higher-quality images were the driver for Fujifilm's prosumer products, said Kayce Baker, director of marketing for the Electronic Imaging Division at Fujifilm North America Corporation.

The Fujifilm X-E1 digital camera -- $1,399 including lens at Amazon, with its wide selection of XF Fujinon lenses -- is perfectly suited for the prosumer's particular imaging needs, she told TechNewsWorld. The X-E1 is an electronic-viewfinder version of the high-end, professional-grade, and expensive hybrid optical viewfinder X-Pro 1. The X-Pro 1's body alone is $1,395 at Amazon.

"The X-E1's features provide the shooter with benefits such as ease of use, fast focus speeds, lens variety and -- for the prosumer, most importantly -- superior image quality," Baker said.

"We find that the difference between a consumer-oriented product and the X-E1 is that superior image quality is a priority for a photographer who may be advancing beyond their point-and-shoot camera and stepping up," she explained.

Prosumers "might find themselves in slightly more challenging photographic scenarios, so with more photographic controls and higher IQ results, the photographer can benefit from a more advanced camera like the X-E1," Baker noted.

Camera maker Leica has honed its brand based on its small-format 35-mm camera, developed in 1925, perhaps the first prosumer camera -- although Leica doesn't like to use the word "prosumer."

"The cameras are for those who are passionate about photography -- whether they are professional, amateur or anywhere else within the scope of photographic expertise," said Valerie Shaindlin of Evins, Leica's North America PR company.

Leica's most recent products include the X2 compact digital camera handmade in Germany with a large image sensor and available lens focally sized for photojournalism. It runs body-only at Amazon for $1,995.

Uniquely, the X2 also features personalized styling options called "Leica a la carte." Where personally requested finishes and features are integrated at build time. And I don't believe you'll get that at the Apple store.

Following are some things to look for if you're thinking about going to the next level.

Manual Controls: Look for manual aperture adjustment. That effect where the subject is in focus, and background out of focus is created using a manual adjustment of the aperture. It's used everywhere from sporting events to art photography.

Glass: The more optical glass the better, plus interchangeable lenses let you adjust focal length, thus magnifying subject, for example. Optical zoom, wide-angle and telephoto lenses are of higher quality than electronic chip-based replication of the same thing.

Sensor: More pixels let you blow up images and crop with higher image quality. The bigger the sensor, the better.

Other Features: Waterproof bodies and weather resistance let you take advantage of shooting where smartphones fear to tread.

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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