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Monday, 16 September 2013


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Apple already had a digital camera:

How about a full-frame camera with a 50mm-f/1.4 lens, a beautiful, timeless design, plus a mirror and optical viewfinder (because no one can live without them)? And no frills: no automatic exposure modes, manual controls only, no connectivity B. S., no video. And, of course, excellent image quality.
...Oh, wait - I've got it already. It's my Olympus OM-2n.

In the original article you mentioned the likelihood that camera phones will soon be over-complicated as well. Maybe given Apple's track record the best bet would be helping them make sure that doesn't happen to the iPhone one? (Or maybe not, but it might happen, right?)

What about the Nikon 1 J series. Excellent and very simple.

Or low end Sony NEX cameras.

Or the Sony RX100.

I just sent a message to the new VP in charge of Ricoh Pentax USA, Jim Malcolm about your little Simple Camera Idea and a link.

No promises, but who knows?

I'm comfortable with the notion that this may not speak for even a modest minority (or it well may) but I'd pay a couple of hundred dollars for a decent little digital that was fully preset in the same way as the cheap disposable film cameras of not so many years ago.

I want desperately to hand such a camera to my 3 1/2 year old grand daughter and let her have a blast making photos but ANY camera that requires more than literal point and shoot is too much. And suggestions about leaving the settings alone simply ignore the truth that very many people (especially those just past being a toddler) neither need, want or are helped by settings that will only break the magic if mishandled. One accidental touch on any setting is too much to risk.

It doesn't even need an "on" button -- since the lens is fixed, pushing the shutter could simultaneously turn it on, snap a shot and turn it back off. A Play/Review push button could allow simple chimping if wanted but even that could be forsaken and I'd still buy it. Toss in a more or less close enough optical viewfinder (think hole to look through!) and it's done enough.

Remember when a camera's user's guide was mostly a description of its various lenses and accessories, and a fairly complete section on how to make different types of photos? And the how-to section covered things like depth of field, shutter speed selection, and composition? The camera itself didn't need much instruction beyond where to put the battery and how to open the back to load the film. And the camera worked sans battery.

A digital Olympus XA2 - throw a 2" screen on the back & keep it cheap. Open the clamshell & shoot, that's pretty much it. Three-zone focus, so for 95% of shooting just make sure you're a few feet away, with the slider if you get picky for a closeup or a landscape. Completely auto exposure, no thinking other than framing (and keeping an eye on the sun) necessary.

How about just Black & White and 6x6 format. I would like that very much!

I do remember when cameras worked without a battery; but that's all the way back to 1987 for me, and I was a late adopter (in this case, of electronic shutters).

It's really been quite a while since mechanical shutters had much currency in "serious" 35mm cameras. The Olympus OM-2 needed a battery in 1975; the Nikkormat EL needed a battery in 1973, the F-3 in 1980. Electronically controlled shutters were simultaneously cheaper, more accurate, and more reliable. (Yes, the FM, FM-2, FM-2n were all mechanical shutters; cheaper and simpler than the pro-grade models.) (Yes, the OM-2 and the F3 had one mechanical shutter speed even if the battery was dead. On the F3, at least, it was triggered via a separate mechanical shutter release.)

Manuel, I hate to remind you, but your beloved OM-2n did have automatic exposure modes (it had aperture priority; it didn't have program). You have to go further back than that to get rid of automation!

The SLR was always a kludge. We accepted additional noise, vibration, complexity (leading to focus inaccuracy and repairs), and increased shutter delay for the ability to use a much wider range of lenses than other designs (other than the view camera, which had limited lens choices for different reasons). It was the dominant professional photographic instrument for a considerable period, while that set of tradeoffs was pretty clearly a win, but now that it's no longer needed I'm going to be really happy to say goodbye to that noisy slappy flappy mirror! (Perhaps at the next round of mirrorless AF improvements; the EM-1 doesn't seem to come up to sports AF levels yet.)

Mike, I see a Kickstarter in your future!

TOP vertical integration: print sales, book publishing, camera design. I like it.

If you have a design in mind then perhaps you could crowd source it and have it built that way. I realise organising the manufacture would be difficult. Or perhaps a simpler solution is to build a plastic wrapper ... similar to the one for the Nokia Lumia 1020 ... which restricts the functions in the way you have in mind. If you designed it in such a way that it could be printed in one of those new-fangled 3D printer thingies then all the better. All you need is a base camera/phone with an open API ...

I suspect that when you say "simple" you really mean "intuitive". Otherwise, "simple" is much more likely to be different for everyone. "Simple" is what one already knows, and people know different things, yet assume everyone else knows more or less the same things, which often proves to be incorrect.

I'm somewhat amused by all the suggestions of this digital or that digital with the caveat that the user just leave it in the Auto mode. I'm likewise amused by the calls for a digital M7, as if that would be the solution for the general population. While both suggestions might seem simple to hobbyists like most of us on this site, I don't feel that either suggestion is what Aunt Mary (and those like her) are looking for.

The answer is something like an iPhone in operation but with a better spec'd sensor and lens. I'm always amazed at the simplicity of my iPhone in its controls. While my inner hobbyist really craves more control (why can't we pick ISO, Apple? Even the camera apps don't allow much control over this). At the same time, I realize there's a brilliance to it. Why does Joe Consumer need to know about ISO? With today's technology, Mike's simple camera could utilize a sensor with acceptable ISO performance from 100-3200 or so and a program auto exposure to make the most of it.

I think such a simple camera would sell and sell well. The key is that there can be no caveats. It has to be as simple as Aunt Mary's cell phone but deliver better quality. No caveats. Just great photos from the simplest of simplest cameras.

How about a downsized (35mm: FF or cropped) S2? (g)

With a Tri-Elmar type fixed lens, IBIS, high ISO; without video.

Digital version of the Koni Omega Rapid or Mamiya Press Universal. Done. Doesn't get any more pure "photography" than those.

I'd even write the instruction manual myself.

That's easy if it's simple enough:

1. Look through little hole in the back.
2. Press shutter.

I don't think it would be a few people who would be interested but the majority of current camera buyers. Almost all I know want something that takes "better" pictures and is easy to use. Older folks like a OVF, younger not at all. But very, very few that I know of move past the auto-everything mode on any camera (including some very nice DSLR gear).

Big problem is meeting that expectation of "better" pictures, without recourse to editting software. These days expectations are high for low light capability (without flash) and exposure range, and giving well exposed shadows with bright backlight. And everything in focus & sharp.

Some of the "intelligent" modes in small cameras are moving in the right direction.

@ Mike: "who'd'a thunk?"

Well, not the camera makers, that's for sure.

Going the path of least resistance here, via Apple. Conveniently, one of our smartphones is now off contract, so I'll be up early Friday to order the iPhone 5S. Our phone contracts are on alternating years, so there will be another new phone+camera come fall 2014.

Thom Hogan's writeup about the 5S camera I found interesting, contrasted to compact camera manufacturers' sales spiral: http://www.gearophile.com/newsviews/iphone-5s-and-more-about.html

Gary Filkins: I recently bought about the closest thing to the ideal kid camera you describe for my 4-1/2 year old daughter. It's the Nikon S31, and it has two buttons on top, one for shooting video and one for snapping stills. The controls on the back are about as simple as cameras get (could be simpler, frankly, but simple enough). There are even some cute shutter noises and playback animations to interest a child.

Granted, there is a pretty big difference between a 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 year old, but my kid has taken to the S31 pretty quickly. Another nice thing: it's waterproof, shockproof, and the lens doesn't need to extend when it's turned on. The lens/flash are in the middle so two little hands can firmly grasp it without blocking the lens. Comes in cute colors, too (ours is yellow).

I'm amazed that people only think the amateur stuff needs simplification; it's the professional stuff that needs it as well!

I have 9 steps of sharpening on my Nikon, but 4 of them look soft and 4 of them look too sharp and ridiculously 'etched'. Why are they on there? Ditto for contrast, all the settings but 1 look too soft or too contrasty; why are they on there?

Personal preference? Here's where the engineers have screwed up! No one wanted any personal preference at the beginning of digital, except for it to look like film!

I take a lot of guff for wanting .TIFF on cameras, but if you can set film sharpness and contrast and color on the camera, why can't I then shoot .TIFF and deliver it direct to the client? I've been doing transparency for 45 years! There's more reasoning involved in getting .TIFF on cameras than 9 steps of sharpening and contrast. If you need that much sharpening and contrast, then THAT'S what should be handled by shooting RAW and post-processing...

Where's my camera that shoots, highest quality JPEG, TIFF, or RAW, or any combination of the three, and just has no settings for contrast and sharpening. In fact, it's better to have a camera with none of those settings and a setting that says: Kodachrome II, Ektachrome E-100G, Fujichrome Velvia! Show me where the engineers have shot Ektachrome of Kodachrome or whatever, scanned and made prints that match the film, and matched all the settings to emulate that! What comes out of my camera looks like no engineer ever did that exploratory process...ever....

BTW, read of a review of one of this 16 bit color, top of the line "pro" cameras that cost $50,000. recently, and it only had two screens worth of settings...Period...

Well, there's at least one digital camera on the market that is much more bare bones than what any other manufacturer has dared to ship up to now.

In essence, that camera's controls consist just of a power on/off button, a shutter button, and a zoom lever — if one ignores its flap-covered memory card slot and USB port.

That camera is very compact and lightweight, and can be used on its own.
It doesn't have a built-in finder, but if you insist, you can presumably also attach an optical viewfinder using e.g. velcro tape and a bit of ingenuity.

The camera can also easily be interfaced to a smartphone e.g. to review the pictures on the smartphone's large display, or upload pictures to a social network.

As far as image quality is concerned, according to DXOmark, its 1-inch BSI CMOS sensor has a dynamic range that puts many larger and more expensive cameras to shame.

That camera's manufacturer also seems to know a thing or two about designing a competent AE metering system.

So, on the one hand, there's this fashionable clamouring about "why don't manufacturers make simple cameras without complicated features and controls that most people will never master".

On the other hand, as the digital camera I'm talking about was announced, it seems most people complained that that camera isn't complicated or sophisticated enough — e.g. "it takes pictures in JPEG only and hasn't got a RAW mode !" "it hasn't got shutter speed priority AE !" "it hasn't got a built-in flash !" "how on earth do we review and erase the pictures ?" etc. etc.

Is the lesson "be careful what you wish for" ?

But to be frank, as far as camera simplicity is concerned, after reading this article, I'm more inclined to think that people who find even a typical compact digicam too complicated should perhaps actually make the effort to tackle it as an intellectual challenge, lest their unexercised neurons progressively slide into the maws of senility ;-)

Here's the thing about the dead simple box cameras and point and shoot film cameras of the past.

First off , the last round of film point and shoots used a tremendous amount of technology for the time to determine exposure and focusing, often more than the "pro" cameras*.

The reason that digital cameras are so much more complicated is that film cameras just exposed film.

From the "You press the button. We do the rest" days until the "film is dead" era, most of the complicated part of amateur photography took place in multimillion dollar facilities where expert craftsman would figure out how to get acceptable prints from badly exposed film.

Verichrome was advertised in 1931 as having eleven stops of exposure latitude
That's why a simple box with a hole in it could make great photographs.

*I never used a camera with a light meter professionally until I did some digital work

"low end Sony NEX cameras"

I love my NEX 3 and old manual focus lenses, but it's about as simple as filling out your income taxes on a videogame. In Latin with roman numerals.

Hello Mike,

Like you, I too wish there were more simple cameras out there.

Over the years in TOP you have, from time-to-time, put forth your ideal design for that ideal camera and, in many a post, recommending actual existing cameras; the 35mm Zeiss Ikon for one, and the 5x4 Chamonix as another. There are others.



I bought both of these above cameras- not least, as a consequence of your detailed and passionate reviews. These two cameras are as you said they would be. They are a joy to use.

Despite being two cameras of differing formats and application, your ability to recognise and ascertain competence and quality should say something about your ability to design that perfect simple camera.

So, that said, why not design this camera on paper, apply for the patent, and then approach the people who could realise it?

I am probably missing something.

Best regards

Greg Clements

There are a number of P&S cameras with very simple operation, such as the Canon A-series, which seems to have an auto mode, a macro mode, and a vido record button. Anything else requires diving into the menu. However, these cameras may not hit your target for picture quality. Are you looking for something with a large sensor, like a Coolpix A without a mode dial and a pop-up button for flash?

Dear Manuel,

Well, that certainly is a no-frills camera, but it's NOT simple.

Try handing it to anyone who is not well versed in the technical aspects of photography and see how good a photograph they can make with it.

That's a very difficult camera to use.

pax / Ctein

meh, all my digital wundercameras are simple cameras because i shoot simply. just ignore the buttons/features you don't need. note: i'm not saying modern cameras are well designed, just that lack of simplicity isn't the problem. those extra features don't cost anything for the most part and neither does ignoring them. the problem with leaving things out it is that everybody has a different idea of which items are necessary. i feel confident from your earlier writing on the topic that i would find a "simple" camera designed by you to be infuriating to use and that you would feel the same way about a "simple" camera designed by me due to lack of features. having non-simple cameras designed by somebody with a cohesive idea of how the whole thing should go together sounds like a novel idea to me. current offerings give the strong impression that different features and aspects of design were created by different groups that never interacted with each other.

on a side note, i've never felt any need to open the manual for a digital camera. you know what camera i had to break out the manual for? a friggin rolleicord! after i fixed the stuck shutter on my father's old rolleicord i had to look in the manual to make sure i was operating the camera correctly.

[[I want desperately to hand such a camera to my 3 1/2 year old grand daughter and let her have a blast making photos but ANY camera that requires more than literal point and shoot is too much. And suggestions about leaving the settings alone simply ignore the truth that very many people (especially those just past being a toddler) neither need, want or are helped by settings that will only break the magic if mishandled. One accidental touch on any setting is too much to risk.]]

As the father of a 3 year-old (and a 7 year-old) we want our kids to enjoy photography as much as mom and dad. After some research, we purchased an Olympus Tough-series camera (TG-820). Yes, they have the ability to press buttons and change some settings, but, honestly, the 3 year-old does not notice (and she rarely does it anyway). Every once in a while I'll find she's switched it over to panorama mode. She doesn't care. She's happy to be using a camera, just like mom and dad.

It's drop-proof, waterproof, crush-proof, dirt-proof, and otherwise toddler proof. The lens stays inside the body, it's got sensor-shift IS, and decent fill-flash. One of the best camera purchase decisions we've ever made. All major camera manufacturers have ruggedized point and shoots. I would look there.

I know this is against all TOP comment rules, but I would like to rectify Mr. David Dyer-Bennet's statements on Olympus OM cameras. The OM-1 and 2 nedded batteries to feed the photometer, not the shutter. The OM-2n, which I own, has the ability to take pictures without its puny LR44 batteries.
And, while the OM-2n did have an 'aperture-preferred' mode (which I never use anyway), what I meant to point out was the absence of fully automatic modes (including the infamous 'scene' modes of today's digital cameras).
I should know my camera by now - even if I lack DD-B's knowledge and experience.

[Just to be clear, it's not against our rules to respond to another commenter if you're being helpful or adding new information. --Mike]

i gave my nearly 3 year old a yashica fx-3 + 50/2 lens when she was 28 months to prevent her from grabbing one of my cameras. she has finally figured out what the viewfinder is for (she figured out the shutter right away and it took a few months to get the finger strength to cock it) and she is happily snapping away with no damage to the camera or lens yet (or any of my cameras more importantly). she was very excited about taking the lens cap on and off when she first got it.

probably the best $5 i've spent on a toy for her, of course the value proposition will change drastically if i start giving her film...

Lateral thinking... that's what's needed.

Just about any digital camera can be converted to a "simple camera" in about 5 minutes.

Set camera to "auto everything" mode.
Apply Araldite or Superglue to control dials/buttons.

I'm dead serious.
It would work on my 5D3.

The problem with the simple camera based on the Contax (T2 was it ?) in my opinion is that the Contax piece of it suggests good build and image quality, and the majority of buyers of that camera are going to want a different kind of simple. They're going to want raw, exposure compensation, flash compensation, ISO control, metering & drive modes, AF area controls at the ready.
The majority of people who want a true iAuto point & shoot aren't in the market for a pricier camera.
I saw someone recently wishing for a super simple camera - raw only, no jpeg engine, not even for the purpose of generating review images.
Everyone's definition of simple is different enough that anything you declare to be simple is going to be a niche product.
My father-in-law is in his 70's and is a serious technophobe. He runs his AV system with a Logitech remote and if anything goes wrong, he calls the friend who set it up for him. He uses a Sony digicam and has had to call me to find out how to "get rid of all that stuff on the screen" (press the 4-way controller up to change the display until it's empty except for the picture). And yet he loves the sweep panorama, video anti-motion blur settings.
My own definition of simple isn't all that simple. I like a camera that's customizable enough that the external controls make it easy to set the things I want to set, and I want a minimum of menu diving to do anything else I do on a regular basis. (Formatting the memory card is ok - I can dig around for things like that). I want to be able to change exposure modes, AF mode, AF area, metering mode, exposure compensation, exposure lock, and of course the actual exposure settings easily. I want to be able to turn image stabilization on & off without digging into the menu (Sony, what were you thinking ?) I like custom memories so I can program in a couple of typical "modes" of shooting. I like my AF-ON functionality (press to focus, hold to focus continuously, release to freeze). I like to be able to change the contents of the display, to bring up the virtual level, histogram or nothing. And I'd love to be able to change the LCD brightness on live view cameras without menu diving (Sony, what were you thinking ? ... the HX5V offers this, but not the NEX-5 !) Make all of that simple and you have a winner !
Aside from a couple of "what were you thinking" issues, the Sony RX100 does a really good job of letting me set it up to suit my preferences.

If Manuel's camera has a mechanical backup speed it is in fact an OM-2SP and not an OM-2N (I have owned both).

The OM-2SP is, almost, beautifully simple. Someone really put thought into the thing. In aperture priority mode, metering was centre-weighted. In manual mode it was always spot. (I say "almost simple", because neither the exposure compensation dial nor the program mode was any use to me, and the program mode reduced shutter performance compared with the OM-4 on which it was based.) Like the OM-2 and OM-2N before it, there was no AE lock. You can almost imagine the engineers taking this beautiful design to management in the 1980s and getting back the command to "add program mode".

With the program mode and exposure compensation, the camera was simpler for non-photographers to operate. In that respect, it remained a simple camera, or perhaps finally became one.

I think in the modern world we will only ever see "almost simple". I know of one such camera: the Sony RX1. It too, is recognisably an ascetic, pure design that stuff like scene modes has been added to. I am prepared to forgive those because they do make the camera simpler for people who don't have the time or ability to learn about aperture and shutter speed.

My definition of simple camera is the Olympus Stylus Epic. It had three buttons: shutter on top; and on the back flash mode select and self-timer. To turn the power on, slide the lens cover away. It fit pretty well in a pocket and had a stunning 35mm f2.8 lens. Sharpness was limited by the film used. To operate, look through the wee tunnel, half press the shutter until the green light comes on (less than 1/2 second), press shutter down when ready.

I can live without a display back on a camera since I usually already know when I push the button whether I got the picture or not. If not, then push the shutter button again...



To clarify to my last note, what I would love to see as a 'perfect, simple' digital camera is a digital version of the Olympus Stylus Epic.

As some have pointed out the manuals compound the problem; they're unable to simply describe what a given menu setting is meant to do. I suspect the manuals are written in Japanese and then given to a translator instead of asking a good technical writer to start from the beginning in English ( or Spanish, French, Farsi etc.). Design is also a culprit; the Panasonic manuals ought to be used in every design class as a classic example of how bad design obscures meaning.And these clunkers come from a country famous for their elegant sense of design!

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