The Ultimate Camera

Bengt Nyman

What is taking so long? The DSLR is big, heavy and slow but takes superb pictures, unfortunately accompanied by a loud, clacking sound. The mirrorless camera is small, light, fast and in some cases totally quiet and vibration-free. However it has difficulties matching the viewing clarity and image quality of the DSLR. Sony is coming close to matching DSLR IQ with its A7R, a full-frame, 36MP, compact, mirrorless camera. However, Sony made two mistakes in the design of the A7. Both have to do with trying to make the camera as compact as possible.

First: Sony pushed the lens as far into the camera as possible. This very short flange distance creates very acute light angles and associated light loss in the image corners. Had Sony settled for a more optimum flange distance, the IQ of the Sony A7R should have been comparable to that of the Nikon D800E which uses the same image sensor but without a compromise in flange distance and pixel optics.

How the ultimate camera might look like?
How the ultimate camera might look like? | Matt’s Classic Cameras
The difference is partially illustrated by DxO test results giving the D800E sensor an IQ score of 96 and the A7R sensor a score of 95. The pixel optics difference is even more clearly demonstrated by DxO testing both cameras with the same lens, the Sigma 35mm F1.4.

The D800/Sigma35 records an overall image quality of 39 and a resolution of 23 P-Mpix (Perceptual Megapixel), while the A7R/Sigma35 records an overall image quality of 34 and a resolution of 17 P-Mpix.

Second Sony A7 mistake: the grip is too small. Even though the camera itself is more compact than a DSLR, the full-frame sensor dictates size and weight of lenses used. The grip should consequently not mimic the miniaturization of the camera, it should enable handling the weight of the entire package.

To keep from losing the charm of the very compact camera, why not a universal grip mount and a range of optional grip sizes.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s design the ultimate camera. And instead of waiting for further breakthroughs in EVFs and image sensor PDAF, let’s fuse existing technology into a functionally ultimate camera.

This will not be a pocket camera. There are already plenty of those. It will be a DSLR size camera with a mirrorless camera function built in. It will have two modes of operation: the DSLR mode and the high-speed, mirrorless CC — or Copy Cat mode.

In DSLR mode it will work like a high-end DSLR doing PDAF autofocus and mirrored light metering, except it will also store light metering and focus point data for possible later use.

Your first image in each burst is consequently an ordinary DSLR image. If you now keep your finger on the shutter release the camera goes into CC mode where the mirror stays out of the way and the images following thereafter are controlled by the image sensor.

If the light metering done by the image sensor does not change and the part of the image that represents the focus point does not lose focus, nothing will change. Aperture, exposure and ISO will remain unchanged while the camera takes a rapid, quiet and vibration free succession of images.

However, if the lighting changes, the camera will adjust the exposure to restore the lighting as seen by the image sensor to equal that of the first image.

Furthermore, if the in focus details go out of focus the camera will adjust the auto-focus to bring the originally chosen details back into focus.

So what’s the hold-up?

Canon, Nikon and others, put your thinking caps on and let us see some innovation and progress.


  • Harry Briels

    I don’t agree with your observations and conclusions regarding the DSRL only being able to generate top image quality.
    You have apparently never shot with the Sony RX1! which beats them all!
    Harry Briels

  • Soerensen

    I disagree. If a lens designer wishes a bigger flange distance, it can incorporate it into the design. By having a shorter flange distance, Sony gives lens designers the option to go either way. If the camera had a bigger flange distance, we had no option for smaller lenses.

    In your case with the Sigma35, you can always use the Nikon version with an adapter on your A7R. This would give you near-identical image quality, but with the the downside of having an even bigger lens.

    My ultimate camera would be medium format EVIL. I always say “as long as the sensor doesn’t fill 80% of the camera front area, the camera is not small or the sensor not big enough” :-)

  • S.Yu

    The difference about the two sensors could be that Sony’s sensor on the a7r is optimized for, well, acute entry angles, so it doesn’t cope so well with somewhat obtuse angles, so the score may very well be reversed if you take apart the d800e and use its sensor with a native lens of a7r, like the FE35, and compare it with native a7r results.
    The difference in resolution is also partly due to Nikon using a more transparent color filter, resulting in worse color separation(Not measured in tests. Ha, slick!) but increased resolution.

  • Bengt Nyman

    “…This would give you near-identical image quality…”
    Unfortunately that is not true.
    You are forgetting that A7R pixel lenses are offset to accommodate the very short flange distance. This compromises the results when you go back to a longer flange distance.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The RX1 is a fine little camera but it comes in number 6, after D800E, A7R, D800, D600 and D610.
    D800E: Sensor score 96, low light 2853
    RX1: Sensor score 93, low light 2534

  • I guess we all agree there is much more to a camera than just physical parameters, it’s not gear specs that make images look great, but I agree that fine specs make the job easier.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Image content and image quality are separate virtues. You can successfully provide one without the other. My goal is to try to offer both.

  • Soerensen

    Good point. Can you quantify that offset? Is is just half a stop, or much more?

  • Soerensen

    What I mean is “can you quantify what that the sensor lenses offset does when you use a lens where the light rays arrive at the sensor straight? How much vignetting does this cause? After all, if you use a tele, the light rays also arrive at the sensor straight, and I haven’t heard people chastising the A7 for having bad tele vignetting.”

  • Bengt Nyman

    “After all, if you use a tele, the light rays also arrive at the sensor straight.”

    No, depending on the setting of the aperture there is only a very small portion of the image sensor that receives parallel rays. The main difference in ray tracing between a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens happens in front of the lens. Once through the lens and inside the camera there is much less of a difference.

    The problem with the peripheral A7R pixel lenses is that they are set up to intercept, capture and direct rays with a very acute angle into the pixel wells. If you light those lenses from a different angle you will loose a portion of the light.

  • Like Soerensen, I disagree too.
    To my knowledge and understanding of the physics the flange distance has nothing to do with the IQ of the image.

    When using a lens, that is built for a short flange distance like the FE lenses, the sensor (micro lenses) has to be designed for lenses with this distance like the FE lenses for NEX or like the short M lenses for Leica M cameras. When using a lens for a larger distance, you just put a tube (adapter) in between, to get the lens in the correct position. It does not affect the IQ, how should it?

    For me (and many others) this is the big advance and flexibility of a short flange distance. On my good old Nikon I could only use lenses made for the F mount (not to count MF lenses), even the Canon is more flexible with a shorter flange distance, that can use Nikon lenses.

    My wish would be a A7M with a 36MP sensor and micro lenses, that can handle the light rays from short M lenses! :-)

  • You are stuck in aporia, by refusing to see that a smaller sensor than 35mm is better suited for mirrorless and small lenses. You are still in dSLR territory, which is now unneeded thanks to electronics progress.
    Even a smaller sensor with well designed short flange optics can achieve 35mm per pixel resolution, and avoid problems at the edges at the same time. Why do you think that pros are migrating to m4/3?
    Hybrid cameras are instead a solution in search of a problem – poor conceptualization. And finally a smaller camera allows you to get closer to one’s subject – so better content.
    It will be interesting to see if Sony ever makes a profit with the A7 series, no such news at the moment.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I agree. For daylight photography and reasonable print sizes I agree.
    However, there is still a big difference in ISO when you drop down to a smaller pixel.

  • No anger at all. I am simply mentioning a geometrical problem, and its occultation. What use is shooting in the dark, if you cannot use UWAs?
    35mm was never designed for short distance to flange, so by peddling it as the return to the prodigal son, you are putting yourself in a flawed stance. Small body, big expensive lenses: where is the price/performance? No surprise if sales are probably lagging.
    If you are telling people not to buy small sensor lenses, you are simply asking to stop the Sun in its course.
    Then you might as well try to market the black cat in the black cave, and send real photography to the dogs :)

  • Jack Anders

    Ergonomic design is as important as image quality for my needs. As an amateur, I am relatively happy with M43 image quality from the current sensors and the better lenses. As you have stated, the issue with smaller bodies is the form factor and the horrible ergonomics of supporting a lens with significant weight/size. Olympus Pens are a great example of this. They are great with prime lenses, but less than ideal when a zoom may be needed with a descent flash attached.

    It is evident that both M43 manufacturers identify this as an issue and cater for certain users with DSLR form bodies for these needs. I use the E-M1 with the 12-40 Olympus zoom + FL600R. The weight of this set up is more than some APSC DSLRs and only marginally smaller. Personally, I am happy to admit that for the foreseeable future, M43 is sufficient for my needs, but everyone’s requirements differ.

    Where to go from here? The market is flooded and the iterations of new models that just keep coming. It mimics the cell phone market prior to the first smart phones. Surely the manufacturers can see this, but who will be the first to change their product direction. Mirrorless may be a future, but small form factor does not suit everybody. Where is the concept Leica X3? For my needs, that baby camera would be fantastic for many uses.

    Other issues with this constant need for new models is new mounts and new designs that cannot use older system components effectively. Many newer systems may not be supported in the future or may disappear from the marketplace and this should be in the back of any potential purchaser’s thoughts when investing significant amounts in a system.

    An apparent issue with most new systems is the general lack of accessories that are needed for serious use in the majority of photographic genres. Wireless flash systems, with high speed sync controllable by the camera body come to mind. The only mirrorless system supporting this feature is M43. A full array of lens selections is also required. Fuji is getting there, M43 is mostly there, but the other mirrorless manufacturers don’t seem to place this as a high priority with some producing more bodies than lenses.

    Maybe a DSLR that does everything is the answer, maybe not. Maybe the DSLR form factor will survive in a limited capacity for those that demand the absolute premium ergonomics, usability and flexibility, and mirrorless will cater for most others. The demands from those requiring the best from their equipment may change when new innovations appear, in technology, electronics and optics. At what point do sensors start to perform well above optics and new optics are needed? In some cases, this seems to be occurring already. Does this start to drive the GAS cycle all over again?

    The only constant, is change, and the speed of change is forever increasing.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I didn’t say not to buy small sensors. You need to talk to Dan about that.
    I agree that 35 mm is not a good choice for a short flange distance. You need to talk to Sony about that.
    The rest of your babble has no content.

  • Wolfgang Lonien

    Sorry Bengt, but I think you see photography through a serious “gear-head view”, and Giles is probably right. And you are the one who is quite hostile in your responses, and a bit high-nosed about what kind of lenses sites like DxO should test, and how (as I wrote in a comment to one of your other articles).

    That said, no one denies that it’s cameras like the 16MP Nikon “full-framers” (what a term!), and probably that new Sony A7s which pretty much guarantee the best possible pixel quality you can get today aside from medium format.

    What you can’t seem to accept is that for a nice head-and shoulders portrait, or for street work or whatever, you don’t need all this. A 16MP µ43rds does that quite well, and if you have the right lens in front of it (like that ultra cheap but astonishingly good 45mm/1.8), I promise that you will get much more detail than your models might want to see. It happened to me, even with 20-something old ones ;-)

    I would also be tempted by a Sony A7 or a Nikon D610 or whatever, but for me they’re just not there yet. Without IBIS, nothing of that is of any interest to me, and the long flange distance and the optical viewfinders of DSLRs are quite negative once you understood the other side. The real innovation is certainly with mirrorless. Hard to accept even for me; i still love the size, haptics, and ergonomics of my old E-520 DSLR, but compared to my E-PL5 it’s definitely a dinosaur. A nice one, still capable of getting a nice 10MP image under the right conditions, but still, it’s aging. Like me.

    Let’s not forget that photography is about catching the light, and the moment, and tools are just not that important. If you want to sell a billboard-sized landscape, you’ll know what to take anyway, don’t you?

    No offense intended; peace instead.


  • I am watching Leica because it seems they are going to act with two main lines of product, both lirrorless: M and T.
    It willl be interesting to compare resolution, since they are going to share lenses too, with an adapter. Leica is the only short register FF35, which solves problems at the edges. So one might as well start from there. BTW they also plan to sell new T ‘cropped’ lenses, so they must believe there is a market.

  • If Leica only were able to produce state-of-the-art camera bodies that match the optics. From what I’ve heard and seen about the upcoming T, people will be all over the lame AF and ISO performance. Somehow they still live in another day and age. When more and more electronics, and less and less optical craftsmanship matter, living in the past is the only chance for them to survive. And not that it’s an uncomfortable survival.

  • I wouldn’t call making the smallest FF35 lenses, and yet solving the problems at the edges in digital ‘living in another age’. I call it damn good engineering, which no other has solved – but tried to imitate, like Sony.
    And now the launch a new system at half the price. Not that I need to leave Olympus, though. Its best lenses don’t necessarily resolve less. They have top per pixel resolution. So I don’t expect any sudden migration to FF35. It rather goes the other way :)

  • Bengt Nyman

    “What you can’t seem to accept is that for a nice head-and shoulders portrait, or for street work or whatever, you don’t need all this.”

    I am flattered that you have read some of what I wrote. However, apparently you didn’t read my comments about the Sony A7S where I said exactly that.
    Anyway, that represents about 5% of my work. I hope you don’t mind that I use full frame cameras like the Nikon D800E for the remaining 95%. So far I haven’t bothered to own a lesser camera for the remaining 5%. However, the Sony A7S might change that, not because of its lower resolution but because it appears to be superior in very low light which I encounter regularly.
    Now please allow me to be a bit aggressive again. I find it interesting that people who settle for a lesser camera insist on the same being enough for everybody and everything else.

  • Yes, indeed. Mirrorless is also about another style of shooting, much closer to the subject.
    Landscape might be the only Genre FF35 covers better. That is why it is so unnerving that imirrorless FF has problems at the edges. One then might be tempted to supplement m4/3 with a Foveon, instead of going through the awesome expense of a full blown A7 system.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Allow me to complement your user impressions with my gear head points of view.

    I would much prefer a mirrorless camera to a DSLR. The mirror is a source of bulk, weight, noise and expense. If it wasn’t for Canon’s, Nikon’s and others investments into DSLR camera production we would probably already have the ultimate mirrorless camera to suit all applications from MF, FF, APS-C m4/3, and on down.

    We are presently in the middle of a shift in technology away from mechanical reflex mirrors toward electronic viewing. When this shift is completed I would expect to see only a few DSLRs left on the market.

    The trend is also going toward smaller and better image sensors. The smartphone market clearly illustrates this. I think it is already safe to say that FF is the new MF. The bulk of sales is no doubt going to be moving downward in sensor sizes toward APS-C, m4/3 and beyond.

    However, what is and will become the most popular has nothing to do with what is technically best for certain applications.

    There are always going to be gear heads like myself working in the field and seeking the technically best solutions.
    That is no reason to start a war between gear heads and other kinds of users.

    The need to have one’s own religion accepted by forcing it onto others is a human weakness the destructiveness of which bears no equal.

  • Soerensen

    Sorry Bengt, but that’s not correct. Basic trigonometry tells me that for a 400mm lens, the light rays will arrive at the sensor edge pretty much perpendicular (86.92 degrees). Since there is no one reporting serious vignetting problems with tele lenses, there is nothing prohibiting people using those lenses on a A7.

  • Wolfgang Lonien

    It obviously makes no sense trying to discuss anything with you – I’ll stop that now. Go and rant as much as you want, but would be much more interesting without these.

    Oh, and by the way: I “insist” on nothing. Now go and do what you want, like all dinos did. I’ll stop reading here since I have a life besides DxO and you.

  • Please guys, let’s respect each other’s opinion, call it a draw and move on, don’t want to close this thread for comments.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Sorry Soerensen. Close the aperture and try again.
    Telephoto lenses should work fine on the Sony A7 which has centered pixeloptics. The same lens works less well on the Sony A7R which has offset pixeloptics.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Thank you Dan for patiently providing this forum.
    My intention with the above article and the idea presented therein is to stimulate discussion about new camera concepts and possibilities. To those who might have an interest in doing so the invitation remains open.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I believe that the DSLR will soon be part of history, at least as far as the mass market is concerned. My proposal above is a suggestion to temporarily combine the best of the reflex mirror with the best of mirrorless while EVFs and image sensor PDAF catch up. The technologies required for the proposed hybrid are already here and the proposed combination primarily requires a marriage of the software techniques used in DSLR and mirrorless.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thanks for your wise and sensible contribution.

  • Soerensen

    I’m sorry Bengt, but you’re not making any sense.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I don’t know how much you know about optics or lens design, but I’m sorry that you are having problems.

  • Jack Anders

    One hopes you let keep the comments comments coming Dan. Educated and respectful commenting stating different points of view always make interesting reading. As an amateur with a keen interest in photography, I try to learn more about all facets of photography. Cameras are one area, but for me, post processing is the area that I know I need to learn more about. For me, that is where I would gain the most improvements; not with new gear that mimics what I already own.

    I recently shot a charity event alongside 3 other “pros” using 35mm. It was evident that only one of these 3 knew what they were really doing and I moved around with him to observe and learn more. The other 2 were simply gear lads that felt it necessary to have the largest gear amongst the crowd. Seeing their results after the shoot confirmed my opinions.

    The chap that really knew his trade was a very unassuming chap who was totally focused on getting the shots and weaving between the crowds to ensure he was in position. He knew exactly what he needed for his editors and what they expected from him. Failure to deliver would be highly undesirable. When things calmed down I asked him about his gear. He was using 2 x 35mm DSLRs on loan from his office. He was not a fan of 35mm and preferred MF. MF was not suitable for this event and therefore he used what would achieve the best possible results in the circumstances. He kept abreast of the new gear on the market but was much more focused on the functionality of his gear.

    Lighting was his absolute priority to ensure high quality shots. He used high powered ring flashes for all portraits with a large external battery pack strapped to one leg. Why; to deliver results as soon as possible after the event and minimise the need to PP to remove flash shadows and other unsightly problems from on camera flash use in a busy environment. Although he shot in RAW + JPG, he would deliver JPGs immediately after the event and these were sufficient for the paying customer’s needs. The RAWs were retained for his use for another business venture when more time was available.

    I learned so much from this chap in one day. The most important lesson was that I never want to turn my photographic hobby into a job. The demands of this type of role would be hectic and take the enjoyment out of my hobby. I am an amateur that likes taking photos when I choose and likes to take my time later to PP them. I am extremely demanding of my own efforts and performance, but I only disappoint myself :). I respect anybody who chooses photography as a profession and can make their profession profitable and successful.

    This is one of the basic differences on many forums regarding photography gear. There are the Pro’s that earn a living from their trade and amateurs that enjoy their hobby. Their needs are different; their budgets can be different and their expectations can be vastly different. Some of the work from both Professionals and Amateurs can be exceptional, some can be quite poor.

    There has never been a better time to be taking photos.

  • Dave

    SLR’s exist for about 150 years and I don’t know why this concept should disappear. Mirror slap is irrelevant in todays refined cameras, the finder is unbeaten, handling and battery life much better than with mirrorless cameras. The only practical advantage mirrorless cameras have over SLRs is size and weight and is the criteria to make the decision. If BN wants to create a hybrid camera with the size of a DSLR he is going in a direction that makes no sens IMHO. If I could I’d like to suggest a mirrorless camera with optical viewfinder to surpass the unmature EVFs and short battery life (eg Leica RF but refined with a layer to display information on: focus balance, focus point all over finder). But latter too would not match the allround capabilites of todays DSLRs either, eg range of focal length, but would serve ME well with a two lens kit 28 & 50. So let both concepts stand on it’s own and refine both for the customer has the choice.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Hi Dave,

    “If I could I’d like to suggest a mirrorless camera with optical viewfinder to surpass the unmature EVFs and short battery life.”

    Therein lies the challenge. Viewfinders with parallax problems are pleasing very few. If we could conceptualize an optical viewfinder that equals what the image sensor sees but stays out of the main optical path and needs no moving parts or moving mirror we would be on the right track.

    Meanwhile I will be experimenting with a mirrorless camera, probably the Sony A7s, and Google Glass to see if this might offer a path forward.

    Keep thinking.

  • Dave

    I keep thinking about Google Glass in a Zeiss Ikon finder….

    Phase One made a hint towards a new camera coming soon. This camera is said to fully use new tech and will give up features from ‘analog times’. I bet they will give up the mirror box but will offer something better than a plain EVF. I still have some questions here, but I keep thinking until we will see it.

    Thanks for your article!

  • One More Thought

    There will never be an ultimate camera, because as humans we will always move the goalposts and want more. This will be further encouraged by very clever marketing departments.

    I daresay that if you had asked someone 5 or 10 years ago what their ultimate camera was, it would have already been exceeded by cameras like the D800, 5dmarkiii, D4s, 1Dx, etc, as well as some of the mirrorless offerings.

    In the film era, camera companies didn’t have to update so often. But camera companies today live in the digital world, where constant and frequent updates are necessary, if only to satisfy the demands for ever greater profits.

    The reality is not that Canon and Nikon are so deficient, but that they are so great. To most people what Canon and Nikon make more than satisfies their needs. Canon and Nikon’s biggest problem is that their consumer dslr’s have been so good that most amateurs feel no need to upgrade. In the old days of film, this would not have been a problem, but it is today in the digital world.

    I was visiting an adjunct office of my employer, and someone had brought in a dslr to take photos of the employees for posting prints in an employee area. The dlsr was a lowly Canon Rebel T1 with the kit lens. Now the people where I work are all very creative and tech savvy. But to most people this entry level Canon dslr was an incredible machine. I remember someone picked it up and remarked how nice it was and how nice it felt in the hand.

    What Canon and Nikon need to really do is team up and go on a campaign to convince more of the buying public of the magic of photography and the need to step up to a more advanced machine than their smartphones.