The ideal camera

I’m going to disappoint you upfront: it doesn’t exist, at least not yet. But what if we did a hypothetical – yet realistic – exercise to see what a product like this would look like?

First disclaimer: I, and a group of partners, were very close to building this – but we were let down partway through by a key technology partner, and found funding challenging – despite the continuing growth of the photographic industry, especially at the advanced amateur and entry-professional segments. Alas, it never materialized. In any case, the idea has matured a bit since then, both through the benefit of time, and ideas gleaned from intervening new product releases.

Second disclaimer: This is what I would like as a photographer, and may not necessarily apply to everybody.

I’m not going to suggest a 100-megapixel, 25fps, point-and-shoot sized body with a full frame sensor, and built in 10-600/1.4 zoom. That’s stupid, and the preserve of equipment masturbators on camera forums who don’t actually use their equipment.

Right now, I use four systems: full frame Leica M digital, for photojournalism, reportage, portraiture and travel work; full frame Nikon FX for extreme low light, macro and controlled lighting work; Micro Four Thirds for personal work/ carry where photography isn’t the primary objective of the outing, and where anything larger might be obtrusive; and finally, a number of compacts for social documentary use. I’ve never been told by a client that I have insufficient resolution; and I’ve delivered images as small as 5MP before. Why? Because I’m a stickler for practicing shot discipline; that means even though I’m ‘only’ giving you 5MP, they’re 5 extremely clean MP at the pixel level, well exposed, perfectly focused, not posterized, and will print cleanly at A2. More MP – say 18 from the M9 – just means you can make larger prints before fine detail breaks down at close inspection distances. That’s all. I’ve only come up against the low light limits of the Nikon system once – and that was photographing a wedding in near darkness (only candles) in rural Nepal; but I was still able to get good quality images with ISO 12,800 and f1.4 glass. I don’t need ISO 512,000.

Let’s take the best parts of each system, and see what our bastard-camera would look like:

1. Sensor size: This is a tough one, actually. There are times when I want a smaller sensor for more DOF (think very compressed perspectives) – I will often use a compact for this. There are times I want a larger sensor for even shallower DOF for a given field of view – this is the main attraction of systems like the Leica S2. Let’s go with full frame, because we can always have a 2x crop factor (it’s easier to multiply out than 1.5x, and when you want a smaller sensor it’s generally because you need more reach or more DOF and more reach.)

2. Sensor spec: 48MP. Whoa, really? What happened to I don’t need huge MP, you’re wondering? Simple: pixel binning. 48 million photo sites – with RGB + Luminance values coming from individual photo sites, would mean amazing detail, fantastically accurate color, and low noise. Output file resolution of 12MP – but actual pixel detail of 12MP. With this technique and today’s sensor architecture, I don’t think it’d be a problem to get a clean ISO 12,800 file. And that’s enough for me. Add a Bayer algorithm mode to give a 12MP crop, and that takes care of my telephoto/ compressed perspective/ high DOF needs.

3. Speed: Doesn’t have to be fast – 5fps is plenty. I work just fine with the single-shot M9-P; most of the time bursts are for stability rather than action.

4. Video modes: I don’t use it, but I do like to experiment – so perhaps a 1080P/ variable frame rate mode would be nice, with full manual controls, of course. But no rolling shutter!

5. Autofocus: Let’s take the best there is now and match it: CAM3500FX in the Nikon D700 is eerily psychic at tracking moving subjects; however, it could use more frame coverage – expand the points to cover out to say 80% of the frame linearly, and we’re in business.

6. Firmware features: Lots of scope for customization: I don’t mind going through a lengthy setup process to ensure the camera does exactly what I want. I want to be able to hide things in menus and reassign all of my buttons, and have custom modes that set all camera behavior – including base exposure parameters – at once. And of course the ability to remember, save and transfer to another camera body.

7. Lenses: AF, fast aperture – at least f2, preferably f1.4. Useable wide open, of course. Physical aperture rings. I don’t need zooms, or extreme focal lengths; 18-24-28-35-50-85-200 and a short tele macro (maybe the 200 could double as a macro) will do me just fine. It could even be reduced to 24-50-85 in a pinch, so long as one of those was a 1:1 macro with capability to take a bellows or extension tubes.

8. Body: Robust, thick-gauge metal (tactility is important) and weather sealed; plenty of sensible physical controls; an optical viewfinder or excellent EVF – I think the new Sony OLED unit in the NEX-7 or 5N is about the minimum. But I much prefer the enormous, bright finder of say the Leica S2. I think M9-size is about perfect; big enough to have some heft and solidity, sufficient space to house all of those controls, and (yes, I’m shallow – or at least some clients are) impressively professional-looking. That would have to have an EVF to maintain the body thinness and accurate framing. If it’s an optical finder, we could probably make it small-SLR size – I don’t see why a full frame sensor won’t fit inside a D7000-sized body; the flange distance is FX-sized, and there were film SLRs of similar dimensions. Ergonomic comfort is very, very important – especially if you’re going to use it for 12 hours a day (or sometimes even more). Plenty of sticky rubber and thumb/ finger hooks, please. Buttons big enough to use with gloves, and wheels/ switches that don’t move unless you want them to – think locking buttons or very stiff detents.

9. Other considerations: File format: Compressed 16-bit DNG. It’s future proof, past-proof, and easy to handle and archive. Don’t bother with JPEG because I don’t use it. Live view would be nice, but not critical; it can be useful for awkward angles but is greatly enhanced by a swivel screen (which frankly I hate because they’re flimsy and compromise body integrity). A vertical grip is nice, but not necessary. What is necessary is a high magnification, high-eyepoint (I, and a lot of other photographers, are poorly sighted thanks to plenty of shooting into bright point light sources and so need to wear glasses) and with a nice big rubber eyecup. A high-resolution, color-accurate LCD is important for review. Most important is operating speed – menus and such – the camera should never feel laggy. This is the #1 reason why I’ve given up on a piece of equipment in the past.

Okay, so who’s going to make me one of these things? MT

Comments

  1. Two or three things I would like to add to this camera: Decent MF abilities (split screen or EVF center magnification), true square format viewfinder option (EVF?), and a magic open platform lens mount for which third party manufacturers could build adapters for all kinds of lenses (vintage and contemporary) – this would require a very short flange distance, of course.

  2. To be honest, i want to control the thing from my Tablet. Can you image having it sit on the tripod, streaming a low-res image, with controls that allow you to adjust the Apeture, Shutter Speed, Focus, (and everthing else) with a nice large view and seeing the results instantly? You’d need a gigabit wireless connection between the camera and tablet.. but it would be awesome.

    • I think there are actually apps (Camera Control Pro or something?) that let you do just that even now. I hardly shoot tripod based, so it never really crossed my mind.

  3. I truly think there can be no such thing as an “ideal” camera. That said, even if a manufacturer made a camera that meets everything you’re looking for, someone might find it not so ideal for their use. Besides, it’s no fun having only one “perfect” camera. :)

    • Agreed – hence the caveat ‘for me’. I don’t shoot sport do I don’t need 10fps, AF tracking and telephotos; the M lens lineup is pretty well suited to me except for the lack of a proper macro, for instance.

  4. Swivel screen as a removable accessory – suppose the swivel screen was detachable, connected by a little cable to the camera body, which provides both power and the video feed, USB 3.0 or Firewire or Thunderbolt So, e.g., there could be a hot-shoe accessory that can anchor the swivel screen; maybe there could be some standard fixture on the camera body to anchor the swivel screen that does not compromise the structural integrity of the camera body.

    • Would it be for photography, or videography? I actually prefer not to have it for photography because it’s one more thing that could get broken (or lost, in the case of a detachable screen). But for video, it’s essential.

      • Use is upto the photo/ videographer. When a 247 ppi screen like the ipad3 comes along, simply replace the accessory, keep the camera.

  5. seems about right, on most points. a hot shoe and a quickly adjustable speed light system is not negotiable…..!

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