The Time Has Come for a New DSLR Paradigm
Let’s face it, DSLRs have made it as far as they need to go in many aspects. Nobody is discussing whether digital is better than film anymore (OK, most people aren’t), nobody complains about having to wait 5 seconds for the photo to be taken after pressing the shutter release, and nobody needs to take out a second mortgage in order to buy a damn good DSLR. Speed, IQ, ergonomics, resolution… The average APS-C, four-thirds and full-frame DSLR has them in spades. Despite the constant complaining typical of our species, the vast majority of photographers now have a DSLR that is as good as they need it to be.
But it can still be made better.
While it is true that DSLRs have come a long way and are better than we are photographers, there are still some problems that camera brands have not tackled, or even acknowledged. What I will write in this article is nothing ground-breaking, and no statues need be erected in my honour. I did not come up with all the ideas, many of which have been whispered amongst digital photographers for years—all I’m trying to do is put everything in one place. I do this with the hope that you will agree with what I’ve written and that when you forward this article to your photographer friends, they also will agree and forward it further, until somewhere down the line an executive of a big camera brand will read it and get his arse into gear. All we need is one brave company to do this, and the rest will follow suit.
I hereby declare it is time to enter a new era in DSLR design. How? I’ll tell you in one word: Modularity.
The Way Things Were
Let me tell you a little story: Once upon a time photographers used to have the ability to change how their photos looked by using different films. If they were going to shoot sports under a cloudy sky, they might pick an ISO800 B&W film; if they were going to shoot landscapes, they might choose an ISO50 Colour film. I know we now have this ability built in to our DSLRs with sensors of varying ISO and post-processing techniques, but in designing sensors that are jacks of all trades, we have sensors that are masters of nothing. I admit that they do a lot of things very well, but many of us wish they could do them even better, without compromises.
There was also a time when high-end cameras had interchangeable viewfinders, plus a whole host of focusing screens and motor drives to suit your particular needs at any given time. The point of these cameras was that they were customisable to suit each photographer’s individual needs. A fashion photographer has very different requirements to a sports photographer, and both have very different requirements to a proud dad or mum snapping away as the kids grow up.
Given today’s economic crisis, I strongly believe the modular approach would save money for both the camera companies and the photographers. On top of that, it would give us better cameras.
Let’s see how this would work.
Maybe the most important part of the camera, the sensor is in charge of collecting those valuable photons. Sensor technology has come a long way since the days of 1MP digital cameras, and now is the perfect time to make them modular. Such a sensor would be interchangeable and would go into your camera in a similar way to the battery. But what is the purpose of an interchangeable sensor? The same as the purpose of an interchangeable lens: To adapt your equipment to the subject you are shooting. While sensors such as the latest all-around 12-15MP ones would still be available, there would also be specialised sensors for those with particular needs. Four likely options spring to mind:
- Low Light: This sensor could be 6-8MP for APS-C (12-15MP for full-frame) and offer big pixels with circuitry optimised for low light shooting at high ISO. It would probably have a base ISO of 400 or 800 and be capable of delivering exceptional IQ at ISO12,800, and usable images from there upwards.
- High Resolution: Landscape, fashion and architectural photographers would love one of these sensors. They would probably only go up to ISO800, but on the plus side they would go down to ISO25 or 12. They could also offer 14-18MP for APS-C (25-35MP for full-frame), allowing high-resolution photographs. Needless to say, they would be optimised for extremely low noise and exquisite tonal transitions.
- B&W: Believe it or not, there would be a market for this type of sensor, not to mention an aftermarket of colour filters! A B&W sensor would have the advantage of not needing to mask individual pixels with red, blue, or green filters, therefore doing away with interpolation, which is how current sensors obtain colour information. Such a sensor would need less pixels to obtain the same resolution as a colour sensor, so it would likely perform very well in low light while still delivering great resolution.
- Infrared: Like B&W, the demand might not be huge (although wedding photographers might flock to it), but this could simply be a B&W sensor with an IR filter on it. A firmware module would have to be supplied with it to ensure correct auto- focusing.
Smart camera manufacturers would offer discounted kits with maybe two sensors and one body, or a “professional kit” comprised of the camera body and all the available sensors. Of course, you could buy your camera with just one sensor and buy another sensor later on if you thought you needed it.
Because camera bodies would be modular, we would have hardware options to fit every pocket and need. Given that they wouldn’t contain a sensor to make them obsolete within 12 months, they would have to be robustly built to last the long years they would be in service. I imagine each company would have to decide on the sizes of bodies they would offer; maybe small, medium and large for the wealthier companies, while the more modest companies would maybe just offer small and medium. However, it should be possible for each size to be spec’d to the pro level—camera companies need to realise that just because you want a pro-spec’d body doesn’t mean you want to carry a brick in you hands. Likewise, just because you have large hands shouldn’t mean you have to spend extra money to get a larger camera if all you need are entry-level capabilities.
Here comes the interesting part, the bits and pieces that you can buy to customise your camera. If you’ve ever bought a computer online directly from a manufacturer (such as Dell or HP) you’ll know exactly what customising means. You don’t buy a computer, you buy the exact computer you need. You pick and choose every component and spec that goes into it, from the processor to the hard-drive speed. This makes sense because a user that just wants to surf the internet and write letters in MS Word has very different needs to a user that wants to play multi-player online games.
Here are some of the hardware pieces that could be available, divided into two groups: those that come pre-installed into the camera body from factory and those that can be changed by the end-user.
- Shutter: A professional photographer would need a heavy-duty shutter guaranteed to deliver well over 100,000 shutter actuations, while for an amateur 100,000 is probably more than enough and they could do with an average shutter mechanism. Maximum shutter speed is also determined by the type of shutter, as are frames-per-second (fps)—some people require 10fps, some are happy with 3fps.
- Image Processing Engine & Cache Memory: How fast can the camera process images? That would be determined by this component. The speed is also linked to the shutter mechanism, as a shutter capable of 10fps (frames per second) requires a faster image processor.
- Sensor: As discussed earlier, this will be the major factor in determining what type of photography you have decided to focus on.
- Focusing Screen: Some current DSLRs allow changing focusing screens, while others don’t. All of them should, as the needs of somebody who shoots mostly in auto-focus are different to those of a wildlife photographer who uses manual focus with very long lenses. Focusing screens should be available for every need.
- Viewfinder: Cameras such as the Pentax LX boasted a wide array of different viewfinders to cater to every photographer’s needs. Let’s bring this approach back!
- GPS: Used to geotag your photos with the geographic coordinates of the place they were taken from. Especially useful for landscape and adventure photographers. It could be added to a grip, or there could be a dedicated space in the camera body for it if using a large body.
- Bluetooth/Wireless: Imagine being able to download your pictures to your computer without the hassle of USB cables or taking the card out of the camera. Imagine being able to upload your photos directly to your website or blog without the need of a computer. How about shooting tethered to a computer…only doing so without a physical tether?
- Wireless Flash: While we’re talking wireless communications here, why not include flashes? The Strobist movement has gathered momentum over the last few years and many amateur photographers are no longer afraid to take their flashes off-camera and link them via 3rd party radio transmitters. Camera brands are missing out on so much revenue by not having proprietary radio controllers. Wouldn’t it be so much better if the radio emitter was inside the camera or additional grip? Wouldn’t it be nice if you bought a flash and the receiver was inside it? I know they have optical communication at the moment, but radio is more advanced and practical for many reasons.
- Grips: Some people want the grips for extra battery life, while others would prefer to insert hardware into it (GPS, Bluetooth/Wireless, etc.). Make both camps happy by offering a grip with an adaptable chamber inside..
The stuff you cannot touch, yet makes your camera work. Up until now there has only been firmware, which is basically your camera’s operating system, and it has always been controlled by the camera companies (except in the case of CHDK, a firmware hack for Canon P&S’s). The time has come for software to also enter the DSLR vernacular.
- Firmware: Camera companies could come up with new and/or improved capabilities they could sell as a firmware upgrade. Remember that much of a camera’s IQ and image “look” depends on the firmware. Firmware development is much cheaper for a camera company than creating a whole new camera, so their return on investment would be very high. Plus, more people would invest in new firmware than in new cameras.
- Applications: If camera companies would allow it, users could build their own applications for their cameras, just like those currently available for the Firefox browser, the iPhone or the BlackBerry. Why do I have to think of obvious things like this? Seriously, the first camera brand to allow users to create and share camera apps will sweep the market. Let me repeat that:The first camera brand to allow users to create and share camera apps will sweep the market.
- Soft Buttons: Each photographer is unique. The same way we all have different shaped hands or favour one eye or the other, we all have preferences as to button positioning on the back of the camera. Because it is not feasible to manufacture camera bodies with different button layouts, there should instead be three or four buttons located close to the right-hand thumb that could be assignable to whatever functions the photographer wants.
This element of photography has always been interchangeable, and it’s brought many good things to photography…so why not follow this example and make just about everything else interchangeable?
But…Can It Be Done?
There might be people thinking that the problem with this crazy idea is that camera companies will not make enough money if we, the photographers, are able to keep bodies for so long. I disagree. By making the body semi-perennial they are free to invest more R&D money on more important things…such as sensors and improved firmware, which they would still be selling and making a profit on. In fact, they could make the same profit, while photographers spend the same amount of money, and yet we the photographers would be happier and better equipped because we would have a single camera with various sensors to allow different styles/types of photography.
I believe sensor technology has reached a point where it is improving slower and slower, and photographers are no longer requesting more megapixels, but better megapixels. Like I said above, a lot of what makes those megapixels better is the firmware and image processing engine, so I could imagine sticking with the same physical sensor for a few years while upgrading the firmware to gain improved IQ, processing speed and functionality. I’d rather pay $200 for a firmware upgrade than $1000 for a new camera I don’t really need. Wouldn’t you?
Another money-earner for the camera makers would be lenses. Yes, lenses. With more money in their pockets because the latest upgrade cost $200 (instead of $1000-1500 for a whole new camera), photographers would be much more likely to spend that money on lenses. I predict that the possible (yet unlikely) loss in profits from camera sales that would come about from modularising DSLRs would be offset by the increase in lens sales.
Of course there would be engineering challenges, but challenges always bring about improvements. As it is, I feel the current DSLR market is reaching stagnation and could use a reboot.
But…Should It Be Done?
Yes. This is why: I want a camera that does exactly what I want it to do and doesn’t do the stuff I don’t care about. Some of this stuff is hardware, some of it is firmware. I know I’m not alone. Whenever any brand releases a new camera the forums are inundated with complaints about features left out or included. It is true that you cannot please everyone all the time, but if DSLRs are made modular in hardware and software then the number of people camera brands can please will undoubtedly increase.
If you think this idea makes any sense, and if you have something to add to the list of modular hardware, then leave a comment below expressing your support for such an initiative. I have hopes that maybe one day some influential camera company executive will read this article and think “hmmmm…this guy has a point!”
One can only dream…