The Golden Age of Digital Cameras, underway since 2011 or so, is going strong yet. Not as strong as before; growth and development is slowing down as the market reaches maturity, as older cameras remain "sufficient" longer, and as that Swiss Army Knife of cosmic proportions, the smartphone, continues to lay waste to the mass market for point-and-shoots.
One major possibility that's currently being fulfilled (and that I'm delighted to see) is small mirrorless cameras with large sensors. First it was the Sony A7 series (a runaway success on any terms) and the inimitably Leica-like Leica derivative of them, the SL; and now we're going to get two mirrorless "FF+" sensor cameras with compact, RF-like form-factors, the Hasselblad X1D and the Fuji GFX systems.
Fuji's bold GFX move echoes profoundly a letter I wrote to the Presidents of Kodak and Minolta and the other consortium members way back before the introduction of the original film APS in 1996—I argued that to kill 35mm film and let APS succeed on the consumer end of things, they needed to also provide a redesigned, cassette-loaded ~645 film (I proposed a 30x40mm image area) on the other side of 35mm...for those who wanted more quality than APS provided. I still think I was right—but only if digital had never happened. I didn't know in 1995 that APS vs. 35mm was a moot point anyway because consumer digital was hull-down on the horizon. But I'm delighted that Fuji has done essentially the same thing...leapfrogging FF (which is, obviously, already pervasive) to an even larger sensor-size that will ideally complement its APS-C-sensor offerings. I don't know who the guiding genius of the Fujifilm camera program is, but whoever it is really has his head together. (It could be a number of people acting together, I suppose, but the Fuji product lineup as a whole is so sensible, and conveys such a strong, characterful vision, that it just doesn't look like the work of a committee. It's a horse, not a camel.)
While there's nothing at all wrong with the choices the Golden Age provides to us—or the excellence of those choices—there are still a lot of possibilities going unfulfilled. Herewith, a few modest proposals for imaginary cameras we could see in the future.
• A truly modular camera. The situation here is almost funny; it's a bit like what was happening just after CD-Rs arrived in the computer world for data storage but just before the public noticed that you could, oh yeah, record music on that. For a short interval in there it was as if the record companies were praying no one would notice. Of course, we not only noticed, eventually we skipped over having a music carrier altogether. Similarly, the camera companies now continue to pray that the public—its market, that would be—remains sweetly ignorant and undemanding of cameras that would be truly modular and thus, selectively user-upgradable.
Imagine if you will (yes, my Rod Serling voice): A range of cameras with a detachable sensor-processor-lensmount module. You pick the body style and viewfinder style you want, and you pick the sensor you want from a range of possibilities—just like you pick your lenses now. In the future, if you want an new, updated sensor, you don't have to buy a new camera and you don't have to give up the camera body you've developed the muscle-memory to operate comfortably: you just buy whatever sensor you want.
You say it couldn't be done? Ah, but it already has been done. Ricoh's GXR was a system with a separate "shell" for the grip and controls, a separate VF, and slide-on modules that combined the sensor and a fixed lens. The fixed lenses on each sensor made the idea an obvious non-starter—interchangeable, model-independent lenses are a bedrock of system camera design, and for a good reason—but there was one sensor, the A12 M-Mount, that just had a sensor, a shutter, and a lensmount.
Any big camera company could do something similar from the top down. The advantages for users would be numerous: you could find a "shell" you liked and had developed muscle-memory for operating, and stick to it while you upgraded sensors to newer-tech options; you could own several sensors and interchange them for specific tasks; you could customize your own camera (imagine, say, a dozen different body shells, a half a dozen different viewfinders, a dozen and a half sensor modules, and the usual assortment of lens options—the number of possible cameras you could "build" proliferates rapidly); and it would enable you to buy a new camera one part at a time, one year upgrading your "shell," the next, your sensor.
So...possible? Of course. But shhh, the camera companies don't want to invest in the engineering, and it's more profitable for them if you throw away your whole camera and buy a whole new one each time you want to update your sensor or processor or AF.
But the market contracting might be good news for this particular idea in the long run. When some big company with the resources to do it finally gets desperate enough to actually market such a system, it will be a big success and everybody will say "why didn't somebody do this before?"
• A square-format box camera with a hood. The generation that is currently "aging out," as they say, has memories of using TLRs and medium-format modular SLRs such as the traditional Hasselblad, that had upward-facing focusing screens and pop-open focusing hoods to shade the screen from impinging light. To use it, you rest the camera comfortably on your stomach and look down into it.
And of course it wouldn't really be a square format, but rather square natively and multi-format in practice. I envisage a simple switch by the handle that would enable you to switch from a vertical to a horizontal rectangle.
There's no reason to make a digital camera like this from a technical standpoint, but there is from a usability standpoint—actual working photographers are aware of the big difference between putting a camera up to your eye, which draws attention to the fact that you're observing something, and looking down at a camera in your hands, which does the opposite. The design freedom that modern camera technology would afford to such a format would enable the creation of a very nice camera indeed.
• A computational camera. This is already in its early stages—Ctein explained it to us back in 2011. The Light L16 is an early tentative step (Light is the worst camera company name in all of history, by the way), and the iPhone 7's camera is another modest early step in this direction. Ctein envisaged a camera with an array of 12 or 16 phone-camera modules linked in software to provide all manner of selectable effects after the fact—telephoto or wide angle, high resolution or high-sensitivity with pixel-binning, even selective plane of focus in post like the Lytro.
I've talked myself into believing that this is inevitable, but the wild card that still exists is whether the market will reach sufficiency before the technology gets very far. Remember, it's smartphones that need to drive this technology. The camera companies are pretty hidebound when it comes to the software side of things. And who knows how much camera smartphone buyers really want or, more importantly, will buy?
• An Apple camera. Given my recent complaints about Apple's recent shortcomings in its core-legacy product line—desktop computers—it might seem like madness to wish that Apple would build a dedicated camera with greater capability than an iPhone's camera has. And The Wall Street Journal in a recent article noted that when Steve Jobs returned in the '90s, he famously pared the company's products down to a minimum. That article (it's called "Why Apple's Critics Are Right This Time") blamed Apple's current product woes on the fact that it's trying to make too many product lines and not paying enough attention to either the details of each product or the needs of that specific product's user group. Seems fair, given that the company chose yet another reduction in size over battery life, proper cooling, and configurability in its latest, supposedly "professional" laptops. Adding yet another product category might be the last thing Apple needs. But bear with me. Yes, Steve is gone, and with him, his genius for simplicity and intuitive operation and customer appeal; a camera he would approve is the reason I used to wish Apple would market a camera.
Now, the reason I wish it would is because Apple, being a phone company, has connectivity advantages that are denied even to giants like Nikon and Canon, and I for one would love to see what they would do with it in a serious camera.
But why would Apple build a standalone camera at all? Well, because it could be a test-bed for advances in smartphone camera technology, enlisting the help of the photographic world's impassioned and deeply involved enthusiast base to help it test ideas and work through various options. Given the weaknesses that are clearly beginning to show around the edges of the Steveless Apple, though, this "future camera" would probably be the least practical idea on my list, and the least likely ever to become real, were it not for...
• A black-and-white-only camera. Yeah, I know...I've been talking about this for a long, long time. And yeah, I know, I said I'd buy the first one that anyone made. But who knew that Leica, the one company in the camera universe that happens to make Veblen Goods for the carriage trade, would be the one to make it—putting me between a rock and a hard place. I can't afford Leicas like I can't afford Ferraris, and, even within the Leica range, the M, a kludgy copy of a great film camera, is probably my least favorite product of all products they make. Wouldn't you know that would be the one and only small camera to intersect with a B&W-only sensor? I mean, bless Dr. Kaufmann and all, but I'm still on the outside of the locked door.
No one else will make a B&W-only camera either, so long as it technically easy to convert color files to B&W files. Of course, I approach things not from the technical side but from the operator side...from, that is, a holistic understanding of how photographers work and what makes a difference when actual photographers are actually out shooting. Some sizeable subset of us don't mind making conversions; another subset of us naturally see like the camera sees regardless of what camera we're using. That includes me.
At least I can console myself (if that's what you'd call it) with the almost certain knowledge that, if anyone did make a reasonably-priced B&W digital camera, they'd almost certainly screw it up. Tonality is tough to get right, and not everyone has the same taste in tonality anyway. What I'd like to see (but, as I'm acknowledging, never will) would be a mid- or low-level variant of an existing mirrorless or DSLR camera, with a sensor with no color filters, which would enable it to simultaneously have a lower pixel count and higher DR and resolution. Give it the proper tonal qualities, i.e., the spectral response and characteristic curve of...oh, hell, since I'm fantasizing anyway, Verichrome Pan on Kodak Medalist paper....
Back to reality. The percentage of photographers who like B&W better than color puts us in the minority, and we probably just need to accept that B&W's day is done; black and white are no longer "the colors of photography" as Robert Frank famously said. It had its run. Digital B&W sucks, or 90% of it does, and maybe that's too bad, but then, few people can ride horseback any more either. Maybe that's just the way it is and will remain.
I'll continue to hope, though.
Of course, something I've touched on but haven't really explored is that various aspects of these five ideas could be combined. A digital box camera with a top-mounted viewing screen with a fold-out hood would make an ideal carrier for exchangeable sensors; they did it with classic Bronica and Hasselblad 6x6 cameras and they do it with medium-format backs, after all. An Apple camera would be a perfect test-bed for a computational camera using an array of miniature sensors. And an interchangeable-sensor camera would be the ideal system in which to include optional B&W-only sensor modules.
But this post is long enough already!
P.S. Try to keep comments short.
"Open Mike" is the editorial page of TOP. Often off-topic, it's not this week.
Original contents copyright 2017 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:
B. Collinson: "In regards to the 'Modular Camera,' they already exist in the world of cinematography. The Red family of digital cinema cameras are the best example, as they were envisioned from the outset as a truly modular camera system."
Ranjit Grover: "I hope one day the camera makers will come together decide on one battery type that will go into all cameras, small and big. I have four cameras from the same manufacturer and all of them use different batteries (of the same voltage) and different chargers. To me none of those wishes of yours are nearly as important as common standard batteries and data cables. Surely that is not asking for too much. If they can settle for common data storage (SD cards), they can settle on batteries and cables too. Asking for a common lens mount may be a bit too much."
hugh crawford: "Re 'Light' being the worst camera company name in all of history: When I was visiting China in 1988, in order to get a visa you had to state your occupation and employer. I put down photographer as occupation and was always introduced as Mr. Hugh, the photographer, since in Chinese the family name is first. Polite giggles would often follow. It turns out that the transliteration of Hugh in Chinese was something along the lines of light or brilliant or flash, and was also the brand of a popular camera. It was sort of like being introduced as Mr. Camera the photographer. Of course I tried to buy one of these Hugh cameras, but could never track one down.
"Later I was spending a lot of time in video editing suites and the joke that never got old was 'could we tweak the hue?' followed by whatever interpretation of tweaking seemed most amusing at the moment."