Forum Login

A Critique of Contemporary Camera Design

A Synthesis of History, Technology, and Art

 By Richard Sexton

Get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.
-- Design credo of architect and furniture designer Charles Eames


The iconic Hasselblad 500 series camera, which is featured in numerous design collections, 
has long been revered as a fine example of the beauty of purely functional, utilitarian design.
It is strictly the product of camera engineering. No professional industrial designer(s) played a role in its familiar form and shape.
Form ever follows function.
 Louis Sullivan 

It’s been only a decade since the digital revolution began, at least as far as digital capture is concerned. Digital printmaking goes back to the early 90s and for the printed page, drum scans and the digitizing of film images and photographic prints goes back all the way to the 80s. But, for photographers, the digital revolution began in earnest in the early days of the 21st century and even more recently than that for some. In this short time span cameras transitioned from optical and mechanical devices used to expose film to light, to imaging computers that convert light into electrical charges, which are then processed into digital information.  The camera itself has been radically transformed into a variety of digital formats, the definitions of which are still ongoing—EVIL, Mirrorless, Micro4/3, and Compact System Camera to name a few. The standardized film sizes of 35mm, 120, 4x5, and 8x10 have been replaced by an array of CCD and CMOS sensor sizes too numerous to keep track of—4/3, APS-C (this one has slightly different dimensions based on manufacturer), APS-H (this one may be gone already), full frame, and medium format (MF) is a catchall phrase for a variety of sensor dimensions that can be used on modular “medium format” cameras. Then all those tiny sensor sizes conveyed as decimalized fractions are cryptic enough to make even technogeeks reach for the calculator to figure out actual physical dimensions. Lenses had to be redesigned as well. Photosites posed some challenges that film did not—forgiving in many ways, and cruelly unforgiving in others. Digital post-production was a game changer too. Software could suddenly fix a lot of issues and anomalies far more cheaply, and in many cases better, than hardware could manage. It has been an exciting, but challenging decade not just for photographers, but for camera engineers and designers, camera manufacturers, marketers, retailers, and virtually everyone else in the game. As exciting as it has been to be a photographer during this period, it has not been without its frustrations, as an epidemic of extraordinary technological innovations have been interspersed with some of the most half-baked, ill conceived, too clever by half, even lame, design innovations, which have been foisted on an unwitting band of photographic practitioners trying to merely do what they’ve always done—make photographs.

This essay isn’t so much a generalized review of contemporary camera design as it is a critique of the current chaos we are in. Chaos, in this sense, isn’t a bad thing. It’s the vortex out of which the technological future of photography will eventually emerge—a more stable future with a more mature form of applied technology, much like we had at the end of the film era when cameras lasted for a lifetime (or until they wore out and were replaced by a relatively identical new camera) and “f8 and be there” was the credo for a successful career in photojournalism. But, today is different. It’s a transitional era during which a lot of people in an assortment of related professions are laying the foundation for what will ultimately become the future of photography—guinea pigs all. And I’d like to focus this essay initially through the lens of history because in a time of chaos with an obtuse future looming ahead of us, the best place to find clarity is through history. And toward that end I’d like to begin with a brief chronicle of watch design. Yes, watches, or more specifically, precision mechanical timepieces. Bear with me, watches and clocks are pervasive; we understand how they work and why we need them. It’s a technology with a long evolutionary history of development that, as with cameras, has been punctuated by abrupt technological innovations and upheavals. Watches, like cameras, have become intertwined in the social trends and fashion statements that define modern society.  And also much like the camera, the technology of precise timekeeping and time measurement has historically forged the “future” we now enjoy. And unlike photography, precision timekeeping is at a place of relative maturity toward which photography is only aspiring.

The ancients, through simple observation and reasoning, were able to determine what we refer to as “natural units” of time: the number of days in a year, the fluctuations of daylight hours, which establish solstice and equinox and thus the seasons. They converted lunar cycles into subdivisions of the solar cycle, and so forth. But, precision timekeeping down to the minute remained elusive. Nonetheless, the sundial and the water clock were very significant prehistoric innovations and their origin is therefore unchronicled. Perhaps, the last of the ancient clocks was the hourglass, which may have arrived in Europe as early as the 8th century, and was certainly commonplace by the 14th century when one appeared in Lorenzetti’s masterpiece 1338 fresco, The Allegory of Good Government, which can still be seen today in all it’s glory in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. By the 13th century, as mechanical technology evolved and humans were forging their way into the modern era, it became possible to build intricate mechanisms, which through a series of cogs and gears, operated with such a high level of precision that time could be measured right down to the hour, minute, and second. These machines were large and ridiculously expensive. So, to make their benefits accessible to the masses they were incorporated in clock towers that ultimately became a fixture in every village and fortification in Europe. Eventually the wealthy could even afford more modest versions of this technology for use in their homes and offices. But, a clock surely wasn’t something that peasants toiling in the fields were ever expected to own. However, technology progressed and clocks got smaller and cheaper. Small enough, in fact, to place on the mantle or hang on the wall. And as the technology was further refined, small timepieces, lacking a pendulum and therefore less influenced by the constant movement of ships at sea, allowed precise timekeeping to be portable. And if mariners knew the precise time, they could plot their location in the void of the sea by charting their position relative to the stars—modern navigation was born and the precision timepiece was the lynchpin. John Harrison’s H5 chronometer of 1761 is credited as the first timepiece accurate enough to allow modern navigational plotting. Well, this was starting to get exciting. Precision timekeeping had become something everybody could use and which they could carry around with them. By the 19th century the pocket watch had become a mark of status and a coveted family heirloom. It became a status symbol because it identified one as a person of wealth, a business owner perhaps and certainly a person important enough to need to know the precise time and educated enough to effortlessly interpret the cryptic analog clock face. It was so important and such a technological achievement for its day that it was made of the finest materials and plated with gold, like fine jewelry.

 La Decapitacion Humana, Circus Sideshow, Nicaragua, 1974. Leica M4 with 35mm Summicron. ©Richard Sexton

The Patek Philippe company had by 1868 made the pocket watch so ridiculously small that it could be worn on one’s wrist, but this extraordinary feat of manufacturing prowess suffered from a cultural bias—Their wristwatch was so petit that society deemed it effeminate and it tended to be used only by women who wore it as a kind of techy jewelry. Men stuck with their more butch pocket watches until a new trend started in 1904. Louis Cartier made a wristwatch for his friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont, the flamboyant Brazilian dirigible pilot, so that he wouldn’t have to fumble for his pocket watch during critical aviation maneuvers. I’m sure it came in handy when Alberto would float his dirigible along Parisian Boulevards at rooftop level and land at his favorite sidewalk cafes for lunch. The gestalt of the wristwatch was changed and the Santos-Dumont wristwatch is still sold by Cartier today, though its current fashion conscious design bears no likeness to the original. And speaking of fashion, in no time, the diminutive wristwatch became such a fashion statement that carrying around a pocket watch readily identified one as a geezer. The wristwatch had already developed a pervasive functional and fashion legacy when in 1960 something extraordinary happened. Max Hetzel, a Swiss-born designer working for the New York watch company Bulova, developed a radical new mechanism. A tiny battery was used to vibrate an equally tiny tuning fork, which drove a timekeeping mechanism with such unerring accuracy that the Bulova Accutron wristwatch became the first wristwatch ever sold with a guarantee of accuracy. A deviation of no more than a minute per month. Now, this was serious. A simple electronic mechanism was suddenly more accurate than the most expensive mechanical ones, which had been steadily evolving since the middle ages.  In fact, these refined, intricate timekeeping mechanisms had become such a source of pride and accomplishment for Swiss culture that the arrival of the Bulova Accutron sent shock waves through the corridors of Swiss industry. In an effort to regain their status as makers of the world’s finest, most accurate, timepieces, in 1962, the Swiss established an R&D think tank to answer America’s Accutron. The Horological Electronics Center would go on to establish a competing electronic mechanism--the quartz watch. And that has led us to where we are today. Insanely cheap, insanely tiny, electronic circuits can now keep time with unerring accuracy. Clocks are in our mobile phones, our computers, our TVs and stereos, and yes, even in our digital cameras. 

The mechanical clock movement, a crowning achievement of its day and one of the cornerstones of the industrial revolution is now completely archaic—an important historical achievement superseded by superior and far cheaper technology. But, wait a minute, aren’t companies still making mechanical watches and aren’t people paying substantial money for them?  The persistence of older technologies isn’t unique to timepieces. Central heating was a fixture in Victorian homes well over a century ago, but we still have fireplaces and not only do we have them, we assign a very high value and corresponding price tag to having them. We can jot down thoughts on our iPhone or iPad or leave reminders for ourselves on little dictation devices, but we still have pencils and notepads. The camera has existed and evolved for more than a century and a half, but people still paint and draw. The interaction of older technologies with newer ones is a complex, even fickle, process. It can defy rationality and economic sense. It can be driven by everything from fear of the unknown to nostalgia for the past. But, it can also be because newer isn’t always better. Newer may only be different, and that difference may lack universal appeal. In the end, decisions about technology are entirely human in character, and as I like to say, just because we can fertilize an egg in a test tube, don’t count on it becoming the preferred method of conception. Human nature dictates otherwise.

This cutaway view of Nikon's new D800 shows the complexity of the reflex mirror housing and pentaprism.
For over a half century, this was the design solution to allow the photographer to see exactly what the lens sees.
This pervasive design is now being challenged by mirrorless camera designs where the photographer sees what the lens sees on an LCD screen or an eye-level EVF.

 Enough background, now to the point:  Camera innovation and design and how that’s all going. I’ll reference watch design and history in much of my analysis, so don’t go thinking that prelude was a waste. My comments are for the most part quite nuanced and ancillary in nature to a camera’s photographic functions and performance and the typical analysis and tests that reviews tout. I couldn’t make that sort of analysis even if I wanted to because I haven’t done the primary research and, quite frankly, I lack that sort of expertise. Rather, my observations center on things like camera design and design intent, its appropriateness, how we relate to the camera as a tool and how specialized or not it might be as a photographic instrument. I’ll concentrate exclusively on the new genre of mirrorless or compact system cameras for a few reasons. First, this is a segment where many new and innovative cameras are being introduced. Second, I’ve been observing this market with intense personal interest because I don’t currently use a mirrorless system, but I intend to in the immediate future, so I have had to learn what’s out there and what best fits my needs. Third, and most importantly, I firmly believe that when we look at mirrorless cameras we are looking at the progenitors of all future digital cameras. The mirror box and pentaprism, which enables us to see what the lens sees before an image is recorded, is no longer the only way to do it. Composing, focusing, and metering directly off the sensor is arguably the best way to do it and it’s what we do every time we use live view on a DSLR. An EVF is merely eye-level live view. So, the entire reflex housing, which is a significant cost of the camera’s design; contributes to additional noise and vibration when a capture is made; and adds to the mass of the camera itself; may very well go the way of the mechanical watch.

It was the unchanging shape of the Leica that made it a cult object. 
Its simple oval form has come to be identified with the uncompromising purity of design of the Bauhaus and the 1930s.
 Deyan Sudjic, writing in Cult Objects, 1985

But, there’s another equally important reason for focusing on mirrorless cameras and it has to do not with the camera’s future, but its past. Well over a half century ago the SLR came to dominate small format photography, eclipsing the simpler rangefinder camera, which predated it. Rangefinders continued to exist obviously, just as pocket watches did, but their use was reduced to a tiny segment of the market. But, they did survive. At least the Leica did and a few inexpensive Japanese models that usually lacked interchangeable lenses survived also. But, the Leica did more than survive, it developed something of a cult following, and not because it could do things no other camera could do. It just did a few things better than any other type of camera. It was smaller and lighter than an SLR. Its shutter was quieter. It was easier to focus in low light. And since it was no longer a common type of camera that professionals used, it attracted far less attention from unwitting subjects. And from a personal standpoint, a Leica M4, though it was not my first camera, became the camera with which I learned photography. In 1974, at age 20, with two college buddies in tow, I headed to Central America in a Datsun station wagon. In a canvas shoulder bag I had the M4 with an MR meter attached to the shoe, 35 & 50 Summicrons, and a 90 tele-elmarit. Later, in Panama, which was a free port in those days, I splurged on an expensive 21mm Schneider Super-Angulon. With the M4 and those 4 lenses I made it overland to Bolivia and back. In the process, I learned about a lot of things, one of which was the rewards of rangefinder photography.

Cusco, Peru, 1974; Leica M4 with 50mm Summicron. ©Richard Sexton

In the early days of the digital revolution a digital camera that offered the user experience of a Leica and that could match the quality level of a Leica film camera was not technically possible. But now, thanks to mirrorless camera designs, that possibility has re-emerged in an entirely new and updated way. And you won’t have to become the modern day equivalent of a geezer with a pocket watch to pursue that route. I’ve gleaned my way through the mirrorless segment looking for a new and modern way to pursue rangefinder photography. The obvious answer—Just buy an M9, doesn’t work for me. Too much technology has intervened since the 1970s. Autofocus is now faster and more accurate than manual rangefinder focusing. The M9, with its CCD sensor, has relatively poor high ISO performance and no live view. The M film cameras were the kings of available darkness in their day. They could be handheld typically @ 1 shutter speed slower than an SLR due to the lack of mirror vibration; they were easier to focus in dim bar rooms; and could be loaded up with push-it-as-many-stops-as-you-dare Tri-X film just as you could with a SLR. Not so the digital version. However, there are now a number of mirrorless cameras, most of which can take M lenses via adapters, and they excel at digital capture in all the same ways a Leica M did with film. Plus, some models are actually small enough to fit in a coat pocket. But, finding the Leica successor in the current mirrorless crowd, which is deserving of the rangefinder legacy from the standpoint of design, quality of user experience, and unobtrusiveness of appearance, is largely an exercise in frustration. Some examples . . .

Sony’s Nex line is certainly a contender, with the new, top of the line 7 being the most viable candidate. Due to the Thai flood and the supply problems that has caused, I’ve actually never shot with the 7, but I’ve played around with the 5n and its lenses, which will also fit the 7. I think Sony has done a lot of things right with the nex bodies, particularly with the 7 and its built in EVF positioned on the upper left, just like a rangefinder. The body is nicely-scaled, ergonomic, and feature laden, but my issue with the system arises from the lens designs. Sony made every effort to make the nex body as small as possible even with its largish APS-C sensor. But, it seems to have made no apparent similar effort with the lenses. They dwarf the scale of the body, particularly so on the 5n. I’ve played around with the system enough to see that from a weight and ergonomics standpoint the lens and body certainly work OK together, but it’s a graceless and ungainly pairing. Even the Zeiss 24mm, which would be a workhorse street lens on this system, is as large as the kit zoom. If you compare it to a 35mm Summicron, its Leica equivalent, the scale difference is considerable. This lens, and all the other Sony E lenses, destroys the pocketability of the system and they undermine the “stealth” value too. And speaking of stealth, this is one of the most misused and misunderstood descriptives of the Leica rangefinder legacy and it’s largely the fault of poor language, I think. “Stealth” is what Walker Evans employed in his NYC subway series when he put a mirror attachment on his lens so that it appeared he was photographing straight ahead, when in fact, he was photographing at a right angle to where he pointed the camera. The attribute most folks are describing when they use “stealth” is the “small and unobtrusive” quality of the Leica Cartier Bresson described. If you were ever in a Cartier Bresson photograph, you typically knew it. You were aware you were being photographed, but you weren’t too threatened by it. The photographer, whose demeanor and approach was typically more important than the camera he used, was unassuming and the little camera was not intimidating. You just had the feeling none of this was going to end up badly in the Sunday papers. So, you went about your business, not that distracted by the photographer’s intervention. Without nitpicking too much over language, it’s unobtrusiveness that I most value in a rangefinder. But unobtrusiveness is lost when the lenses are large. I don’t care if you disguise the camera body as a TV remote, if you stick a 200mm telephoto on it, or something of that scale, you are going to intimidate any stranger you point it toward at close range. If you look at the Zeiss 24, particularly with the huge lens shade it’s paired with, and compare that to a Leica 35mm Summicron and ask yourself which one is more intimidating if it were in your face at close range, I think the answer is obvious. And another thing that’s particularly relevant to the lenses: Either offer the bodies and lenses in both chrome and black, or chrome only, or black only. This random system for component finishes, is nutty, poorly conceived design.

Arcade, Quito, Ecuador, 1974. Leica M4 with 35mm Summicron. ©Richard Sexton

The other thing Sony has done that indicates to me they maybe have bigger fish to fry than merely inheriting the rangefinder legacy has to do with decisions they’ve made about their top of the line camera—the nex 7. They put a 24MP sensor in it, a resolution upgrade from the 16MP sensor in the nex5n. No real problem there. 24MP is great, but this decision did nothing to enhance the high ISO performance of the system. For my money, a newly engineered 16MP sensor with 2 stops of additional high ISO performance would have been a more appropriate design decision if Sony were genuinely aiming for a great digital street camera. Plus, they’ve paired the camera, and its super hi-res sensor with a cheap, slow, and I’ve already mentioned BIG, kit zoom. I just don’t see how the 24MP sensor does anything but embarrass the kit lens performance. Even if the lens is OK, this just doesn’t seem to be the marketing decision of a company that’s intent on pursuing the rangefinder legacy. The fact that the new sensor and its smaller pixels cause more problems for wide-angle legacy lenses is another reason I question the sensor decision. The diminutive wide-angle legacy lenses like the 15mm Cosina would be a great pairing with the nex 7, and appropriately scaled I might add. But an additional step of post-production in a separate software package is necessary to correct the color crossover you’d get with this Cosina lens. For many purposes, the nex system will undoubtedly produce extraordinary results and the platform already has many ardent supporters, but as a digital rangefinder—close, but no cigar . . . yet. Get the fast, small AF prime lenses into the mix and the next thing you know you’ll have men wearing wristwatches.

Though I was dismissive of the M9 as the digital equivalent of its older film siblings, that’s not necessarily true of all of Leica’s contemporary camera offerings. There’s the Leica X1, a truly intriguing near miss of a camera. Though it’s intentionally limited in it’s repertoire, the X1 was an extraordinary idea and, the black model in particular, is a masterpiece of industrial design—modern in every regard and with elegantly simple controls. An architect friend of mine has one and he loves it. When he first showed it to me, he introduced it thusly, “It has no viewfinder, no video capability, you can’t manually focus the lens, you can’t even adjust the length of the camera strap, but it takes fantastic pictures, is a pleasure to use, and just look at it.” And, yes, it is quite beautiful, and is easily the only camera in its segment that could easily win an industrial design award, and probably already has. When I asked my friend why you couldn’t just slip an optical viewfinder into the shoe, since it has a fixed focal length lens, he responded, “Well, sure, they actually make one for it, but its $350.” Now, trust me my friend has all the money he needs for just about anything he might want. He just felt silly spending $350 for an optical viewfinder when you can buy a Canon S90 for practically the same price. So, it is with Leica ownership. Be prepared to suffer for art.  It’s not that Leica is controlled by a bunch of sadists, but as market share diminishes, the economies of mass production also diminish and that, more than Old World craftsmanship, or quality of materials, or any other expensive reason you can think of determines what the individual purchaser is going to have to pay. But, this is a marketing dynamic. So, why isn’t the X1 a contender as a digital rangefinder? My architect friend has already summed that up nicely, but I’ll elaborate a bit further: with no viable, parallax corrected optical finder, no EVF, and a high price tag, it doesn’t quite make the grade. Even still, the X1 has better high ISO performance than the M9 and it’s got live view and all for a tiny fraction of the M9 price. 

The quirky Pentax K01, though its aesthetic appeal is debatable, is an example of how digital camera design isn't obliged to closely follow antecedent designs of film cameras.
With design cues seemingly drawn from appliances and digital devices like inkjet printers, the K01 approach is decidedly atypical.
The yellow finish further adds to its playful quirkiness, by reviving the 1980s penchant for using the color yellow to infer water resistance
by appropriating the color of scuba gear of the day. Remember those ads of the bright yellow walkman with water droplets all over it?

There’s another contender in the mix, and they foresaw the content of my previous paragraph long before I wrote it. The Fuji X100 is clearly a direct attempt to answer the X1 and it seems to have done so with gusto. A clumsy menu system and a host of less than perfect electronic performance features belie the level of enthusiasm for the camera. A viewfinder system the X1 needed, but didn’t have, a fast lens, and superb image files, apparently will make up for a lot of shortcomings elsewhere. But, the success of the X100 is also a testament to the pent up demand for a digital solution to the rangefinder experience and that leads me to my primary disappointment in the Fuji X line, which now includes the X10 small sensor camera and the just released top of the line X-Pro1. The all too obvious design hubris for rangefinder era cameras is Fuji’s major distraction at the moment. The reviews for the X-Pro1 are just coming in now, but the reviews for the earlier X100 and X10 have made a point of mentioning how good the cameras look and the attractive retro styling. I want to be clear here that I’m not faulting the use of dedicated manual dials, as opposed to electronic ones, or of using metal parts, as opposed to plastic. What I’m faulting is the deliberate attempt to make the camera appear to have come from another era. That’s retro styling and it isn’t necessarily good design. It’s imitative and derivative design, which confuses the genuine articles with its imitators. And when done poorly, the retro product can easily be nothing less than a parody of the original. There’s a big difference between Elvis and an Elvis impersonator. Now, fortunately in Fuji’s case their retro design hasn’t quite gone too far, and they do have some legitimate marketing reasons for this approach, but I don’t think we should be encouraging them too vigorously in that regard. We’re now in a new formative world where the design constraints of the film camera no longer exist. A camera is free to be something completely different, if it needs to be. Others in the mirrorless camera segment, and not just Fuji, seem to be preoccupied with the retro look and as popular as that might be in satisfying our nostalgic desires for cameras to be more like they were in the film era, a retro fetish is not the best idea for fostering improved camera design. Driving forward while gazing constantly in the rear view mirror is problematic. As important as it is to realize what’s behind you, the car is going forward awfully fast in the world we now live in. So, this is a time when we need to be looking forward in our design thinking, in my view.

This is probably as good a point as any to bring up the importance of the way products look--their aesthetic appeal.  It’s described in the parlance in many ways—sleek, elegant, sexy, or stodgy, old-fashioned, solid, as the case may be. Manufacturers, through the design of their products convey a wealth of information about them. For instance, when you look at a Porsche Carrera, everything about the design of the car, from the contours of the body, to the interior layout, to the shape of the seats, literally scream at you that this thing goes fast. For all you know, it could have a lawnmower engine in it and have difficulty topping 20 miles an hour, but it looks blazingly fast sitting still. Porsche is telling you repeatedly in every aspect of the design of the car that this is a machine that will get you a speeding ticket in first gear. And it will, so they aren’t deceiving you. Cameras are no different in this regard. Their makers are conveying information about their intent with the design of the camera system itself. When I look at the Sony Nex, what I see Sony telling me is, “Here is the future and superior alternative to the DSLR.” When I look at a Fuji X camera, they are telling me something different, “We are reviving the rangefinder experience in a digital camera.” To prove my point that I’m not misreading their signals, go online to their websites, or read their ads, and look at what they are writing about the products in their advertising and marketing materials. They are saying very similar things there. When I look at the new Olympus OM-D EM5 (Did I get all the letters in?) my first reaction is I’ve been napping and have been awakened to find I’m back in the early 70s and the OM-1 is all the rage. Well, at least they are slavishly copying their own camera, rather than a competitor’s, as they remind us of their former glory. But, more importantly, what this camera design says in its shape is that it has a reflex housing and prism in it, which it does not. Good design frequently masks or conceals complex or confusing technology that the user may not understand or need to know about. However indicating through design shape or detailing that your product has features it does not, is a no no. Beyond that, because Olympus has chosen to give the camera shape a pseudo-pentaprism configuration, that’s where the EVF is obligated to go, rather than the more ergonomic corner position. These sorts of pseudo-features conveyed through design are generally pretty harmless, like those fake exhaust ports and intakes on automobiles, or the old vinyl tops on cars that tried to make them look like sexy convertibles, but in Olympus’s case they’re allowing retro-styling decisions to push around the functional placement of a primary component of the camera. Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Olympus. The OM-D looks to be a pretty capable new camera that a lot of people are excited about, but the company first revived their half frame Pen camera and now the OM-1, so it’s just a retro approach across the board and I don’t see the camera of the future emerging out of a design process that’s this backwards looking.

While I’m on the subject of the aesthetics of design, there’s another point to be made and this comes directly from personal experience. Whenever, I’m working with a tripod-mounted camera, and maybe have a lighting setup in place, too, I could care less what the whole assemblage looks like aesthetically. I’ll tether the rig to a laptop and never get the least bit concerned over how unsightly the spectacle becomes. But, the second a camera is around my neck, or held to my eye, or I’m taking it with me everywhere and is in my shoulder bag at all times, it becomes an extension of myself. It says something about who I am and I’m suddenly paying as much attention to its design as I am to the clothes I’m wearing, the eyeglasses on my face, and all the rest.  This is human nature.  Many, many decades ago, as soon as timepieces became portable, and they became intimate personal possessions, what they looked like became critically important. They became precious in a way that other products were not. And over time watches were purveyed by the same retailers that sold fine jewelry and other fancy goods. So, in many ways the design of our walkaround cameras, for reasons that are both pragmatic, such as how big they are, and seemingly frivolous, such as how elegantly designed they are, become equally important, maybe too important, in some cases. The “preciousness” factor of a camera can be allowed to destroy its usefulness.  It is such a personal object, and one for which your pride of possession is intensely strong, and it may be exorbitantly expensive to boot, and this has all conspired to influence how you relate to it as a tool. It has become the expensive Cartier or Patek Philippe watch you simply can’t wear in the pool, or when you’re gardening and doing chores, or maybe when you’re out late at night at the clubs and are fearful it will attract a mugging predator on your way back to the car. It has become too special and has to be guarded like the family jewels. Cameras can become that for many people who think they’re a photographer, but in fact they’re actually a collector with a fetish for a cult object that they may on occasion shoot a picture with. Manufacturers certainly do their part to contribute to this syndrome. They market limited editions, with special markings and engravings, or unusual colors, reducing fine equipment to expensive bangles. That’s neither good design, nor good marketing. I won’t name name’s here, but I’ll give you a hint: I’ve already mentioned two culprits recently, and one of them repeatedly.

The Olympus OM-D is a mirrorless camera design disguised as an SLR from the 1970s.
The value of these sorts of retro-styling decisions is highly debatable. Is this really the path to a better camera design that's more attuned to digital technology?

I really couldn’t sum this all up before delving into the micro 4/3 segment, which I’ve ignored to this point for gruesome reasons. The micro 4/3 format really begot the mirrorless platform as it currently exists in its infantile state. The primary manufacturing supporters of the format, Panasonic and Olympus both have intriguing cameras with various feature levels, plus there’s a standardized lens mount, which is a noble idea. The 4/3 platform is supported now by a pretty extensive array of lenses and some of the camera models feature blazingly fast AF and on and on. This platform was so much at the center of the mirrorless segment only just a year ago, that it had my undivided attention and I just presumed that my rangefinder successor would eventually come from one of the offerings of either Panasonic or Olympus. But, in the chaos we are in, things change fast. I now wonder if the 4/3 format will even survive in the long term. Some of the digital formats will disappear, of that I feel certain. I believe 4/3 may be one of them because sensor manufacturing costs will decrease and its been proven now by a host of manufacturers that APS-C sensors can be used in small camera designs and the IQ, particularly high ISO IQ, benefits from a larger sensor. Canon has even put an APS-C sensor in a G series Powershot camera. As APS-C is used pervasively in the mirrorless and entry level DSLR markets, the economies of scale are bound to win out. Because the size of the sensor will predicate the design and specifications of lens systems, which is where the true production costs lie, a winnowing down of formats, rather than an expansion, is the likely outcome of the evolutionary process. And now I’ll go even further out on the limb and look like a real idiot later if I’m wrong and state that I think Nikon, a new entrant in the mirrorless segment, has cleverly figured something out with their 1 series. I’ve had no interest in exploring this platform personally. There’s just not much in it for me, but I think Nikon has calculated that the sensor in their 1 series is positioned to be the smallest imager for a standalone camera of the near future. And I believe they are conveying that through the design of the camera, which says to me, “Here is the small, easy to use consumer version of our pro gear, which will take much better pictures than your camera phone.” All of those tiny sensor, amateur oriented digital cameras are going to disappear. Like the incredibly shrinking timepieces before them, tiny sensor cameras will be embedded in other devices, namely smartphones. There just isn’t going to be any reason to buy a basic little digital camera in the future that will end up lost or in the trash a year later. Everyone will have a quite capable camera that also shoots video in their phone. The technology has already arrived, it’s just that not everyone worldwide has upgraded to the latest phones yet. To actually justify buying a standalone camera, it will need a bump up in image quality over a phone, it will probably even need interchangeable lenses, or it just won’t be worth the bother. So, those tiny sensor point and shoots and the 4/3 format will be left out in the cold. But, bear in mind, this is chaos, and I could be completely wrong and its Nikon that’s screwed because consumers will need to bump all the way up to 4/3 format to justify a standalone camera purchase. It’s just anyone’s guess. Point being though that for enthusiast cameras, and serious image making, I think APS-C is where the cameras with a professional feature set and quality lenses will start.

I’ll close out with this: I think I or any number of other photographers who were rangefinder photographers in the film era could easily construct an iconic digital rangefinder if they combed through all the current offerings picking and choosing the right design elements and features from both the camera bodies and the lenses of all the various manufacturers who are in the hunt. But, I think all would also agree that no one manufacturer has put everything together in one system consolidated under a single mark. That level of perfection will come and it may be here before we know it. And that will certainly happen if photographers demand it by providing meaningful feedback to the manufacturers. Let them know when they’re getting it right and complain loudly when they’re getting it wrong and that’s better done with your pocketbook than in email correspondence and online forums. As for me, I’m certain that the digital rangefinder for me is out there on the horizon. It will be small, unobtrusive, well-designed, modern in concept, affordable, and will offer a very high quality user experience.  And I’ve already got the canvas shoulder bag to put it in. 

Streetscape, Popayan, Colombia, 1974; Leica M4 with 21mm Schneider Super-Angulon. ©Richard Sexton
The goal [of design], it seems to me, is to help limit and reduce the chaos of the world about us.
Accordingly, the best design for me is the least design . . . Models of good design are almost without exception
models of a kind of design that is reserved and chaste, modest and unimposing, neutral and balanced.
 Dieter Rams, former head of product design at Braun, and Germany’s most important industrial designer of the postwar era.

 

Richard Sexton
May, 2012 


Richard Sexton

Richard Sexton has written about and photographed product design in his 1987 book American Style: Classic Product Design from Airstream to Zippo and about architectural design inParallel Utopias: The Quest for Community. He previously served as a professional spokesperson for Ebony view cameras in the United States and wrote their user manual for asymmetrical movements on Ebony cameras. As a commercial photographer he has worked for some of the leading architects and designers in the United States photographing everything from interiors to furniture designs to lighting systems. More information about his work is available on his web site: www.richardsextonstudio.com.


UPDATE

I’ve received a number of emails from readers, who’ve raised some valid points, which I’d like to address in this brief update. First, I’ve heard from several readers, all from Sweden, who wanted to point out that the very first Hasselblad reflex camera, the 1600F, was designed by a noted Swedish industrial designer, Sixten Sason, who was best known for his automotive designs for Saab. Sason was not credited as the designer for the Hasselblad 500. No one was, which led to the perception in the U. S., at least in the 1960s museum catalog I used as reference, that no professional industrial designer had a role in the 500 series. However, the design similarity between the 1600F and 500 series cameras is quite obvious. Though Sason had no formal role in the 500 design, his influence was there in spirit through his antecedent design of the 1600F.

Thanks to Sean Reid who pointed out that Walker Evans’ most pervasive technique in his NYC subway series, was not through the use of a right angle mirror attachment, but he instead concealed the camera underneath his coat, with only the lens poking out. He ran a cable release down the coat sleeve and thus was attempting to be even more surreptitious and “stealthy” in his technique, than with a right angle mirror attachment on his lens. 

A couple readers took issue with the fact that I described the G1X sensor as being APS-C format and they are technically correct in this regard. The G1X sensor is the very same Canon sensor used in the 60D, but it is cropped to the aspect ratio of the sensors in other G series Powershot cameras, which is squarer than the 2:3 ratio of DSLRs. So, it is smaller than the APS-C sensors in Canon’s DSLRs. However, from a manufacturing standpoint, and from the standpoint of economies of scale, it is APS-C, and it is a larger sensor than M43 cameras.

Speaking of which, some of the most pointed feedback, particularly in the online forums, came from users of M43 cameras who were understandably perturbed over my speculation that the format may be in trouble over the long term. My prologue to this conjecture was devoted to unfettered praise for the format and my epilogue to it hedged that I could be entirely wrong. My observation is based strictly on the current facts. At inception, 43 format was adopted by two manufacturers—Panasonic and Olympus. In the meantime, Sony, Fuji, Pentax, Samsung, and Nikon have joined the mirrorless fray and none have adopted 43 format in doing so. You can count Leica in the flock too, if you consider the X1 and now the X2. Canon is widely expected to come into the mirrorless fold before year’s end with an interchangeable lens camera and no one is predicting that 43 will be their chosen format. Critical mass is moving away from 43 format at the moment, not toward it, and that’s all I’m observing. M43 has much to offer nonetheless. Just remember any commentary on the future of the human race has no bearing on your personal longevity, or on you as a person. So it is with cameras and their manufacture.

Filed Under:  
Essays   

show page metadata

Concepts: Camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Leica Camera, Digital camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Image sensor, Rangefinder camera, Watch

Entities: Siena, New York City, Leica, Sony, Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Bulova, Pentax, Porsche, Airstream, Europe, America, United States, Bolivia, Panama, Colombia, Germany, Palazzo Pubblico, mobile phones, LCD screen, metal parts, DSLR, EVF, mariners, Horological Electronics Center, Good Government, Michael Reichmann, Louis Cartier, Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Charles Eames, Richard Sexton, John Harrison, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Dieter Rams, Alberto, Lorenzetti, Max Hetzel, Porsche Carrera, Patek Philippe, Elvis, SLR, iPhone

Tags: cameras, designs, digital, camera designs, sensor, rangefinder, mirrorless camera, Leica, digital camera, mirrorless camera design, film camera, technology, pocket watch, small, rangefinder legacy, standalone camera, clock, manufacturers, tiny sensor, sensor cameras, good design, contemporary camera, live view, ISO performance, high iso performance, new camera, th century, digital rangefinder, wristwatch, aps-c sensor, contemporary camera design, mirrorless segment, simpler rangefinder camera, digital revolution, digital camera design, shoulder bag, Leica film camera, watches, identical new camera, Sony