The Golden Age of Cameras Part 2

Posted on February 22, 2015 by psu

If you ask photo dorks of a certain age to name the golden age of film cameras they will usually tell you that it was the 1970s. In addition, if you talk to the right people, they will tell you that the camera that started the 1970s golden age was the Olympus OM-1. The OM-1 defined the standard size and shape of the classic 35mm SLR camera. You can see the design influence of this machine by studying the consumer-oriented bodies from all of the other major camera companies of the same period: Pentax K1000, Nikon FM/FE, the Canon AE series, the Minolta XE and so on. SLR cameras finally approached the perfection of the original perfectly sized 35mm camera: the Leica. They went from being large and clunky to being perfectly sized little bricks of polished metal. It wasn’t until the advent of autofocus that this perfection was replaced by the ubiquitous and almost identical egg-shaped polycarbonate body shells that dominated camera body design in the late 80s through 2000.

In the digital age the anonymous rounded plastic shells persisted. If we mark the Nikon D1 (or Canon EOS-D30) as the first practical digital SLR cameras, then for about the first ten years of the digital era we all happily lugged those large pieces of molded plastic around, but we spent four or five of those years asking why they had to be so large.

Nikon and Canon were in something of a bind with respect to this aspect of body design. For various reasons they have spent most of the 15 years of the DSLR era trying to hedge between cameras that use sensors that are the same size as 35mm film (“full frame”, or FX in Nikon speak) and making other cameras that use smaller sensors and thus smaller bodies (cropped frame, or “DX” in Nikon speak, APS for everyone else). There is no rational reason to be attached to the 35mm frame size. But people don’t like spending thousands of dollars to replace all their lenses, and they also don’t like all their pictures suddenly being cropped. So Canon and Nikon continue to hedge, making no one happy.

Note: It’s instructive to note that people using full-frame DSLRs needed to replace all their lenses anyway, because digital sensors do not behave the same way at their edges as film does. The result is that you have to redesign the optics to cover a larger image circle to compensate for this, and thus convince everyone to buy new lenses to avoid the strange optical effects. This is also one reason why the Nikon and Canon full frame DSLR lenses are so huge.

We should not be surprised that it was Olympus that again stepped up to the plate and fixed this problem for us. Again, they were not alone. Panasonic, Fuji (of all people), Sigma (will keep flogging that Foveon horse until it’s dead for good), and Sony (the zombie Minolta) have also jumped into this game. They share the common characteristic that their users are outside the umbrella of the CaNikon duopoly, so they can do anything they want and will not get lynched by their users for making all the lenses useless.

What they have done is shrink the “serious” digital camera by two means:

  1. Smaller sensor. Sigma, Fuji and Sony use sensors that are DX/APS sized. The Olympus and Panasonic bodies use a half-frame sensor … that is each side of the sensor is half as long as a 35mm film frame.

  2. Removing the mirror from the camera body, and thus the word “reflex” part of “single lens reflex”.

The mirror in the camera body was always just for the benefit of the human. The camera doesn’t need it. In fact, a major part of the complexity of the SLR camera mechanism is all the tiny machinery needed to get the mirror out of the way so the camera can take a picture.

Anyway. The cameras that got me on this bandwagon for good were the Olympus OMD series. Yes the camera oozes cheap nostalgia for the OM body style. Yes the reality is that the camera handles nothing like an old OM-1. It doesn’t have the same dials. It doesn’t make the same noises. But, what it does do is give me the same range of lenses that I had on my Nikon at about one-third the weight. Maybe even less. In addition for the most part the camera performs about as well as the old D700 did. The only time you can tell the difference is trying to make it focus on moving objects or trying to take pictures in the dark.

But, I have discussed this before.

What I want to discuss now is an underrated side benefit of this new wave of mirrorless cameras. I’m actually stealing this idea from Thom Hogan. In this piece about available cameras that use compact bodies but have large sensors he makes the point that in the new digital world you can turn the old idea about camera system building upside down.

The old way: the camera body is a box that holds film, the real system is in the lenses.

The new way: Small cameras with large sensors mean you can just buy multiple small fixed-lens cameras to cover all the focal lengths.

I think this is a very interesting observation.

Using multiple fixed lens cameras has certain advantages. You shield the sensor from dust since you never change lenses. You can make the whole package even smaller. You can tune the image processing in the camera to the particular characteristics of the lens. The integrated cameras also tend to be much cheaper than separates. Actually using multiple fixed lens cameras has only one major disadvantage: you have to use multiple versions of the piece of shit standard camera user interface. That’s too bad.

Consider that I use the following lenses with my Olympus E-M5:

  1. Primes: 12mm, 17mm, 45mm, 75mm. All around F2. This covers roughly nthe same set of FOVs as a 24mm, 35mm, 90mm and 150mm in 35mm film terms.

  2. Zooms: The new Olympus 12-40/2.8. This is a great lens. Nice range, fast, and small.

But now I could buy the Panasonic LX100 and get much of that range in one small body. The lens probably is not as good as the primes, especially at the long end (the Olympus 45mm lens is incredible… here is proof). I lose the nice macro that the Oly zoom gives me. And the Panasonic zoom lens is not as fast as the long primes. That said, the Panasonic camera actually costs less than what I paid for my zoom alone. I don’t remember if it was available when I bought the zoom lens. If it was I feel a bit silly.

Also consider this: say I was considering a second E-M5 body … say I had a bag that would hold both bodies with attached lenses just fine. I could instead just pick up the LX100 and use it in exactly the same way, with less weight. The only downside is that the camera handles differently than the Olympus, and I’d have to use both UIs at the same time.

Obviously you can take this idea even further, combining pocket zoom cameras with larger single focal length cameras and larger zoom cameras to make any sort of system you want.

So, this is the second aspect of the current camera golden age. For almost anything that you want to do with a camera, you can probably find a really small integrated camera that is built specifically to do that job. The only real exception is any application that requires fast autofocus with exotically long lenses. But that cannot be far away. It’s just a simple matter of programming, right?

As usual, the camera companies have no idea of the potential of this design direction. For the most part this new generation of cameras are built and packaged just like the older digital point and shoots (or compact single lens cameras), they just have a new and faster version of the same embedded image processing and shitty user interface software. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of systematic thought going how these cameras should relate to the larger universe of photo products. Sony appears to have three or four distinct and independent groups throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. Nikon and Canon have no clue at all. Olympus is concentrating mainly in higher end system cameras. Fuji and Panasonic sit way out at the fringes of the world, but their lines have the most shared design. They even have some of the same sensors and similar UI in both their interchangeable and fixed lens products. It’s too bad they’ll be out of the business before it pays off.

It seems like no one has realized that all they really need to make is two or three integrated products (one wide to normal, one normal to long) that have enough in common to be usable. It also seems that the software people at these companies purposely avoid standing out from the crowd by continuing to ignore long-standing workflow and integration issues. But I already complained about that in the first part of this series.

Overall though, it’s hard to complain. You can now put together a camera system that goes from 24mm (in 35mm terms) to 200mm, all at around F2.8, and fit that system into one or two large jacket pockets if you are a large person, or a small purse if you are a small person. In addition, you probably won’t have to change lenses to get that range, and you’ll be able to capture a wider range of tones in a wider range of lighting situations than you ever could have dreamed of with your 1975 Olympus OM-1. This is not a bad situation to be in. Maybe in another fifteen years or so the camera industry will surprise us with good software. Or maybe by then some integrated consumer hardware and software company will have made the point moot.

Extra Note: If you want to read more complaining, go here.