The Future of Camera Design

Cameras haven’t really come a long way since the days of Karl Nüchterlein, inventor of the first SLR for the mass market, and Oskar Barnack, father of 35mm photography who sealed the fate of large format cameras. Since them, camera design didn’t evolve much for decades. The Konica Autoreflex gave us workable exposure automation, but only the turn of the millennium and ascent of digital photography began to really turn upside down the photography as we always knew it. Currently we’re at a most interesting juncture where cameras can’t get even more compact. You have to be able to hold the thing and the laws of light and physics can’t be bent. Still, the camera as we know it is a dying breed.

For a starter, good cameras won’t become much cheaper. On the contrary. New and better gear is big marketing and therefore business. Look at Sony with the RX1 and looming NEX-9 with price tags of several thousands of dollars — amounts people are willing to pay. People are always willing to pay good money for nice photography gear because by being a photographer we’re our own master — and creative at that.

Some cameras with according lenses cost even tens of thousands of dollars, just to mention the ones with the red dot and from that Swedish camera maker, not to mention the niche/boutique ALPA platform. These cameras, however, don’t represent the main evolutionary progress of camera functionality and design.

Cameras prevalent today have filters and functions and movie mode, even though the real professionals insist they neither need it nor would they ever buy a camera with it. They also despise live view and EVF… Doesn’t this remind us on the Konica Autoreflex when pros insisted they don’t need no automatic exposure. That was in the mid-60s. In the 70s every professional camera had exposure automation.

Same happened with autofocus and image stabilization. Professionals were belitteling the Minolta Maxxum 7000, world’s first camera to feature integrated autofocus. Experts were sure this feature would be of no use for professionals. The Canon EOS however changed the landscape and evolution of camera design. Manually focused cameras have quickly become a small minority.

Also, Konica-Minolta (later acquired by Sony) were the first to offer sensor stabilization. No need, said pros. Today every camera — with a few pricy exceptions – advertises either lens or sensor stabilization.

Should I also mention the evolution from film to digital? Now that’s a tricky debate I don’t want to get into. Could as well talk about the advantages of this or that religion…

Back to evolution. The same specter of extinction will happen to OVF. Some niche products will always offer the mechanical, optical solution (or rangefinder for that). The future of camera manufacturing however points to a different direction. Thanks to visionary Olympus and Panasonic the pentaprism is a thing of the past. Mirrorless without the traditional mirrorbox introduced in 1936 makes cameras not only smaller and lighter, mirrorless also paved the way for a flood of innovations, such as anti-dust mechanisms, Micro Four Thirds, and so forth.

It’s probably correct to say that everyone who’s buying a mid-priced camera today holds technology in his or her hands that professionals could only dream about a few years ago. So modern imaging technology makes every amateur somewhat look like a pro, even though knowledge about the field of photography isn’t included when buying one of these hyper-cameras that promise photographic heaven on earth.

But that’s why we buy ever new gear. Because we can’t resist evolution. To speak with Leica luminary Erwin Puts:

The theory of evolution states that the cause of a major change is a new constellation of the environment leading to the loss of no longer functional elements.

Neither OVF nor the mirror nor its box are necessary any longer, suggests Puts. It’s only a matter of time before these reminiscences of the past will be history and a topic for nostalgia.

In other words, over time this fate of extinction will be shared by the opto-mechanical rangefinder a.k.a. Messsucher of the Leica M bodies. The niche will survive, but not the demand. For purists the Leica M Typ 240 with video mode and live view is already a sacrilege. For pragmatists and newcomers the M is a welcome evolution.

Some say video technology is the true disruptive feature being forced upon every photographic device. Just take the cometic rise of YouTube. Movies are more popular than ever because they tell a different, more lively story than stills… really? That’s the common thinking it seems, but isn’t a good picture worth a thousand words.

I call this video-mania “phototainment.” But the world doesn’t care, moves on and keeps evolving. Sensors will get again larger with the ascent of more compact full-frame cameras to be introduced either late this year or in 2014. Both Fujifilm and Sony hinted at premium compact camera systems with interchangeable lenses.

Wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Leica steals the show with a more compact M system. Question is whether the Germany will introduce this evolutionary M before or after their competitors.

So if, and that’s a bold if, if camera manufacturers succeed in offering a compact large sensor system with interchangeable lenses that aren’t of monstrous sizes, then today’s prevalent digital APS-C sensor will most likely not succeed the 35mm film format.

That’s a big if, but as the advantages of bigger sensors are undisputed I’d put my money on “larger, but not bigger” being the medium-term future of camera development.

The Derby-Lux was made by Gallus of Paris in 1945. The camera was quite ahead of its time --  it was constructed of machined aluminum, a design that Apple would embrace years later in its MacBook Pro series. The most sought-after cameras of the future won't look much different.
The Derby-Lux was made by Gallus of Paris in 1945. The camera was quite ahead of its time — it was constructed of machined aluminum, a design that Apple would embrace years later in its MacBook Pro series. The most sought-after cameras of the future won’t look much different.
Retro and minimalism may be thriving selling points right now, but the camera we always knew, the device that makes and takes photographs, is on the brink of extinction.

Tomorrow’s cameras are all-inclusive. From an evolutionary point of view, tradition and nostalgia will only have a minor right to exist. Evolution is something very pragmatic and efficient. It has no sympathy for the weak link in the chain.

In the evolutionary theory progress is a remorseless power that forces species to adapt or die when the environment changes, says Puts. The traditional camera will be even more marginalized. Tomorrow’s camera is an all-in-one photographic device and video camera and editing tool and über-automatic convergence apparatus linking you in real-time with the rest of the world.

At the same time, however, photographers are yearning for the good old past. The more intelligent and all-inclusive cameras become, the stronger a niche market will grow for state-of-the art premium devices with good old classic handling and feel.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I agree with everything you said.

    I think that the nostalgic component of the market is separate, non driving and negligible. The volume and the money in that part of the industry is near null and strictly a collector activity that has nothing to do with taking pictures. It’s like collecting old cars and has nothing to do with where the market is going. New IC technology like digital image sensors and digital EVF displays are the engines that will drive the camera evolution over the hump. Once the digital image sensor is capable of producing state of the art auto focus the noisy old mirror boxes will be gone. I recently bought my last mirror box because it looks like another year before we get what everybody is waiting for; a mirrorless, fullformat digital system camera with instant and accurate PDAF-CDAF autofocus. Once the industry is done test marketing the new technologies I believe we will see a line of pro level cameras for stills and a separate line for video. Consumer cameras and mobile phones will most likely continue to offer a combination of stills and video like they already do. The next big step will be when the optical part of your 3D camera becomes part of your eye glasses, you trigger it with your eyelids and the electronics go on your key chain.

  • Had high hopes once for an Apple-designed camera system, but I guess those ambitions got buried with the success of the iPhone. A Steve Jobs cam would certainly have been something and set the trend… or maybe Jobs saw himself that the future camera trends point only into one direction — the one the iPhone is now dictating camera manufacturers: produce small and all-inclusive gadgets.

  • PWL

    I find it interesting that pros allegedly hate EVF. I’d heard a lot of bad stuff about it….then I got my Olympus EM-5. I never found it hard at all to transition from OVF to EVF. I found it to be a help , not a hinderance, to see exactly what the sensor sees. Right up front , you see what the photo’s going to look like, and adjust accordingly, rather than finding out later that you flubbed it. Certainly has cut down on the mistakes, in my experience.

    But as as you pointed out, there was a time when pros thought they didn’t need no auto-exposure. Amazing that it’s the pros who are always so retrograde in their thinking. They’ll come around, like they did back then….

  • A “pro,” above all, is such a loose term. What defines it? Maybe the anti-pro? Whoever makes a living from photography? Onw would expect they’re non-sectarian enough to make use of what facilitates the job.