If my email correspondence is any indication, there's still a good deal of confusion among some readers as to what I mean by a "simple DSLR." I've been asked how a camera can be highly specified (i.e., very well built, with excellent performance) and also be simple.
Of course the two aren't mutually exclusive. I'll give just a few concrete examples.
• A simple camera might have a single AF point in the middle of the viewfinder view. A highly specified camera would have very good autofocus: sensitive, fast, and able to work in very low light. In this sense a simple camera could have high or low quality AF, and a complicated camera (one with, say, 18 focus points, algorithms for switching automatically between one and another focus point automatically, provisions for tying the metering to the focus point in use, focus tracking, etc.) could also be of high quality or low quality.
• A simple camera might shoot only raw. That would eliminate all of the in-camera image processing features that are better accomplished on a computer anyway, for those who will do all their post processing on a computer anyway.
• A simple camera might eliminate features currently expected by tyros and occasional shooters coming from digicams, like the Sony A900 does by not having pop-up flash, live view, or video. The standard example of this is the "green square" default mode and all the rest of the "scene modes" that can be found on amateur cameras. While these might make it "easier" for people who don't understand how cameras work to get a higher percentage of successful exposures in certain situations, they also increase opacity—that is, they make it harder for those users to learn how cameras work.
• A highly spec'd camera might have a shutter that is designed to have a useful life of 150,000 actuations, vs. 5,000 actuations for an entry-level model. This has nothing to do with simplicity as it is perceived by the operator, as either shutter could be just as easy to use and understand.
• A highly spec'd camera would also be precise: the viewfinder would show the actual field of view of the capture, accurately; there would be less slop in the AF; the exposure would never "wander"; etc.
Understand, too, that I'm not arguing that every camera should be simple. I'm not even arguing that every camera should be well made. After all, some people just want to take a few pictures at birthday parties and on vacation every year. There's nothing at all wrong with that, and no reason for those people to spend money on build-quality they don't need. Current entry-level cameras are very good, and quite suitable for most of the people who buy them. I'm also not arguing that it's "wrong" for a top professional camera to have tons of features: those cameras also suit their users, who both understand their cameras' features and will learn how to use them. In advocating simplicity I'm merely observing that it would be nice to have a few cameras that are radically simple, for those who like to be in control of the device they're using, instead of the other way around, without having an onerous number of configurations to master. Just so there's that option. For those who prefer it. (As I explained below, this will never happen, but it would still be nice.)
The same thing goes for having a camera or two available that is small and light but not intended for rank amateurs, like the new K-7: it would simply be nice to have a couple of choices along those lines. That doesn't mean all cameras have to be that way.
I also feel obliged to mention, for those who don't quite believe it, that there is absolutely no technological obstacle for a reasonably well-built and highly specified modern DSLR to be relatively small and light. It's true, such a camera would not be the smallest and lightest there is; and it's true, such a camera would not have every single feature of the absolute top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art cameras that exist. But the current fashion that ties complexity successively better levels of build quality is simply that: a fashion. It certainly exists in other fields besides cameras, too.
Probably the ultimate example of a "simple" but "highly specified" camera are the ones featured in the post just below this one. If you discount what's needed to do to load and unload film (and I'll lump the ISO dial in with that set of capabilities, since on a film camera you only set the ISO once, when you load the film), there are only six controls on a Leica MP:
2. a focus ring or knob, to set the focus.
3. an aperture ring, to set the aperture.
4. a shutter-speed dial, to set the shutter speed.
5. the shutter release button, to take the picture.
And that's all it needs. And no one can argue that Leicas aren't useful for making good pictures. Granted, I doubt that a DSLR would be feasible with just six controls. But it would be interesting to count up just how many controls that, say, a Nikon D3 or a Canon 1D Mark III offers; I'll bet the number is well up into the three figures. And it might also be interesting to consider how few controls an optimally simplified DSLR would really need. I don't know, but I'm guessing it would be in the low two figures.
Oh, that sixth control on a Leica: there's a lever that allows you to preview different framelines than you currently have showing. In two decades of intermittently owning and shooting Leicas, I've never once used that.