Surreptitious street photographers like quiet cameras. Certain other photographers like loud ones—I remember how surprised I was to learn that a fashion-photographer acquaintance didn't like the then-new Nikon F4 when it came out, because the shutter was too quiet! Turns out his models used the clank-whirr of his F3's motor-driven shutter to cue their movements, and photographer and his models were having trouble getting into their usual groove with the too-quiet F4.
The Leica M used to be renowned for being ultra-quiet. An urban legend held that it was the only camera allowed in certain courtrooms because it was so quiet it didn't interrupt the proceedings.
Now, you can buy digital cameras that are silent. For some, too silent—the cameras add a tiny pre-recorded digital "shutter noise" as an option for when you press the button and would prefer a little aural feedback.
And even some cameras with flipping mirrors are very quiet now. Have you heard the soft flutter of the shutter of the Canon 6D? It is, wonderfully, nearly noiseless. I'd love to pit it head-to-head with the old Leica M7 for loudness. No telling which would win.
Similarly, small size was for a very long time a sort of holy grail...or at least a selling point for some. The original "Barnack camera"—the Leica before there was an "M"—was designed by Oskar to be as tiny as it could be, basically barely bigger than the cassette of film it had to hold. Later emendations—the addition of a small rangefinder on top, then the transition to the classic but considerably bigger "M" in the early 1950s—were decried by some purists for making the cameras bigger.
Barnack's Leica A was miniscule for its day.
Photo from Pacific Rim Camera's Photographic Pages.
Along the way there were various attempts to create ultra-small cameras, either by using smaller kinds of film, or oversimplifying basic controls and functions. Minox spy cameras, Rollei 35's, that sort of thing.
The Olympus OM-1 of 1971 was another famous attempt at "miniaturization." The 1960s were a decade when Pentax (Asahi) ruled. Its M42 screwmount Spotmatic was the quintessential camera of the decade, and by 1971 Asahi had sold 3 million SLRs. It was late adapting to the trend of proprietary quick-change bayonet mounts, and its cameras were chunky. The OM-1 featured a number of mechanical innovations that added up to a full-function SLR of very small size. Pentax, charmed and alarmed, followed suit five years later—as did Nikon, which owned the top end of the camera market but didn't really start to compete in the consumer end until the '70s.
I've personally never been very status conscious, and not very tolerant of people for whom status in an overriding concern. So I've never been particularly covetous of extremes, the "best" or "most" or "smallest" or "fastest." Much more appealing to me is the "Goldilocks principle"—"just right." Early on, I decided I liked cameras that were small but not too small. I picked the ultimate in the OM line as my personal ideal. The OM-4T was 87mm high* by 139mm wide by 50mm deep, and weighed 18.5 ounces. It seemed about perfect to me. Big enough to handle comfortably, heavy enough so the strap wouldn't slip off my shoulder, but small enough to be inconspicuous and light enough to be easily portable. Didn't want a bigger camera, didn't want a smaller camera.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Panasonic GX1 and Sony NEX-6 are about as small as they can possibly be without being too small. The NEX-6, by contrast with the old OM-4, is 67mm high by 120mm wide by 43mm deep, and weighs 12.2 ounces. Too small by my old standards. I guess my standards have shifted.
And the thing is, neither of those cameras is unusually small by today's standards—certainly not small enough to be known for being small.
It's been a decade now since Michelle Martin of Pentax had a eureka moment during a marketing meeting and realized that the Pentax Optio S would fit inside an Altoids tin. At least since then, we've have many options among truly tiny digital cameras. But most, including the cameras now thrown into every smartphone, have had very tiny sensors, too. That goes for the Pentax Q, future collectible and the current IL descendant of the Pentax 110.
Canon Rebel SL1 next to an "average sized" DSLR with the same size sensor. Graphic courtesy of camerasize.com.
Just recently, we have a suddenly burgeoning number of choices among very small APS-C cameras, and even one extremely small full-frame camera (the Sony RX1). Many good cameras are arguably too small, at least for the hands of Western males. And I haven't yet mentioned the forthcoming Canon Rebel SL1 (100D), a smart move by Canon because it's a camera that some photographers want and need and haven't really had in Canon's line before—an SLR that's very small but still good. Why shouldn't people who want that be served too?
Know what the SL1 reminds me of most? The Nikon EM of 1979.
Recently, we've seen APS-C sensors in very small cameras, with the smaller NEX's perhaps leading the way. Recently we've seem the Nikon Coolpix A, a small point-and-shoot that is 64mm high by 111mm wide by 40mm deep, and weighs only 10.5 ounces with its lens—and yet has an APS-C sensor (which I consider the standard "full size" for digital, although the word "full" would be very confusing applied to APS-C, given that 35mm-size is often called "full-frame"). Not to be outdone, Ricoh, which now owns Pentax, has introduced a variant of its long-lived, well-respected GR line of small-sensor digicams that also has a big APS-C sensor in it. Its specs are 61mm high, 117mm wide, and 35mm deep, and 8.6 oz. with lens.
Not to be outdone in the size contest, Sony has debuted a pancake lens for the tiny-to-small NEX system cameras that is only 8/10ths of an inch long and weighs less than 2.5 ounces! And which, coincidentally or not, is within a close shave of the focal length of the fixed lenses on the Coolpix A and Ricoh GR. Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather have a NEX-6 with the 20mm ƒ/2.8 pancake than either a Coolpix A or a Ricoh GR.
Sony 20mm E-mount is tiny and very light
I'm sure the limits of small size will continue to be explored by the cameramakers, and options will continue to be filled in as various makers compete with each other. (Most notably, Sony has currently stolen a march on its opposition in the small FF camera category. One that isn't likely to go long unanswered unless the RX1 is a sales flop.)
Still, from my perspective—that is, as someone who likes cameras that are small but not too small—it seems like we're awfully close to being there. Just as we're past the time when "quiet" is a meaningful marker of fame for a camera, we're fast approaching the time when "small" as a similar marker of renown will no longer be available.
But maybe you have other opinions. We all have our own standards, after all.
*Note that this encompasses a "prism hump." No digital but the OM-D has one of these, and the OM-D's exists as a retro homage.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jamie Pillers: "Don't forget Fuji. They're making an effort to produce what are, for me, Goldilocks cameras. Smallish in size, quiet, and great line of lenses. And...real optical viewfinders! :-)"
Nicholas Condon (partial comment): "To my mind, there are two countervailang goals at work: A camera should be big enough to handle, but small enough to carry. The difficulty that I see is that the intersection between the set of all cameras small enough to carry everywhere and the set of all cameras big enough handle is empty."
Gaspar: "To me, it's not about the size of the camera, but about the size of the grip. The Pentax K-7 is about the same size of one of the Rebels, but its grip has just the right size and shape. On the other hand, no grip at all is also a great way to go: the Olympus E-420 is absolutely perfect; I wish they still made those...."
Howard Cornelsen: "Not an urban legend regarding no camera louder than a Leica M allowed in court. It was a case taken up by my colleague Steffan Kippert of E. Leitz, Inc. (now Leica Camera Inc.) in the State of Florida. Florida passed a law reading that 'no camera louder than a Leica M' be allowed in Florida courts."
Paul De Zan: "The Canon 6D is more than quiet—it's eerie quiet. After owning one for a couple of months, I'm not completely convinced it really has a mirror, or possibly its mirror is made of some secret new material that resembles butter, but doesn't melt."
Mike replies: I actually quite like the 6D, although it doesn't seem to be making many waves.
JonA: "Without cameras making noises, what would the lyrebird do? Go to around the 1:46 mark if you want to cut to the pertinent imitations."
Mike replies: Wow. That is without a doubt the coolest shutter sound I have ever heard!! Thanks for that, made my day. :-)
Zvonimir MW Tosic: "An interesting picture that shows the relative size of the new GR from Pentax Ricoh and all other mirrorless brethren. To say that the GR is compact is an understatement."
Tim F: "If it was big I would find myself wanting a smaller one. If it was small I would want a body with a larger sensor. If it had one focal length then I would envy a system with more flexibility, and if it had a zoom then I'd want a prime. I would get tired protecting a it from the elements and a weather-sealed system would weigh too much. I require world-class focus tracking, instantaneous JPEG effects and a super-fast built-in processor but the battery can not be too big or expensive, and it has to shoot 1000 frames without recharging. And oy, the price!"