The Time Has Come for a New DSLR Paradigm

by Miserere

  

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.

  

Sensors

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.

 

Bodies

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.

 

Hardware

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.

Factory installed:

  • 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.

User installed:

  • 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..

 

Software

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.

 

Lenses

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…

22 Responses to “The Time Has Come for a New DSLR Paradigm”

  1. interesting post.
    one different thought though.
    digital cameras are mostly computers so the dell analogue fits nicely but i have a remark to make.
    when i bought my first computer i was bothered about the specs and did some market research to find out what was good for me at that time and how i could upgrade it if need arose. in fact the only upgrade i made 3 years later was to get rid of the old machine and buy a new one. the reason?
    why keep the old (but still operating) sound and vga cards when the basic motherboard came with better integrated ones?
    why keep the old hard drive when it is less than 1/50 of the size of the new one and definitely slower?
    why keep the old cd driver instead of a new cd rw?
    of course i changed the processor and ram and finaly the only thing left was the monitor. even the mouse and keyboard needed an adaptor if i wanted to keep them!
    the then new computer costed half as much as the old one had.
    my point. why bother about modularity when it will eventually become obsolete in just a few years?

    • Grigoris,

      A camera has far fewer components than a computer, and it would be easier to reduce their potential for obsolescence. The reason computers become old is because software advances in such a way that your computer may not have the power to run a program released 5 years from now. A camera will still be able to take photographs 5 years from now, if it shoots DNG, a computer will still be able to read its RAW file. If the megapixel race is over (and it should be) a 15MP chip 5 years from now should still be read fine by a camera body reading a 15MP chip today.

      Like I said in the article, this concept is not without challenges and difficulties :)

  2. Hi Miserere,
    My response became too long, so I have posted it as an article in my own blog. In short, I disagree. :-)
    http://alunfoto.blogspot.com/2009/05/dslr-modularity.html
    Best,
    Jostein

    • Thanks Jostein, your thoughts are always welcome.

      You’re quite right that batteries are an issue, and maybe I should have made my position clear in the post (instead of not mentioning them). Think about AA batteries; they have come a long way, and rechargeable versions are getting better every year (they hold more charge, lose it a lot slower, etc.), but their shape and function remains the same. All a company needs is to adopt a battery shape and go with it for the long run. Bear in mind that many proprietary batteries are simply plastic shells holding standard batteries inside. I don’t think batteries would bring down the modular concept.

      • Miserere, thanks for taking time to comment on my blogpost in both places. My point was that if you have a modular camera with a certain set of specs and want to upgrade one of the modules, you may find dependencies to other modules making the upgrade a much larger undertaking than anticipated. I used the PSU as an example. Looking at the previous generations of Pentax DSLRs, it appears that the demands on the power supply has become ever more stringent. I implicitly extrapolated this into the future. The coming K-7 is an interesting beast in this regard. It seems able to use various types of batteries in the accessory grip. However the operating voltage has been increased. *If* Pentax had currently had a modular design, this alone would make a modular upgrade to K-7 specs impossible.
        But don’t get me wrong, I think a modular concept would be interesting. I just don’t see it coming. :-)

  3. I .. for the most part .. kinda disagree with your arguments :) They’re not wrong per se. I think the needs you have laid out are mostly valid. It’s just the solutions I’m not that keen on. You seem to want a mostly in-camera solution. Most of the issues you have listed do exist, but can be addressed by buying a good high-end DSLR like a Nikon D300 … and using Photoshop. One thing many people overlook is that being a photographer in the digital age _demands_ that one learns to be comfortable and creative in Photoshop, much like most of the great film photographers were also masters in the darkroom. I would for example never dream of shooting black and white photos with a hardware b&w sensor, because for me the actual b&w look of a photo is something I fix and finalize in Photoshop. Similarly I would never use any kind of in-camera postprocessing, because post is not something you should be doing in the field. It takes time and there’s always some degree of experimentation in it. Still, this was an interesting read and good food for thought. Plus I always approve of people challenging the status quo because that’s the only way new ideas are born :)

    • Shukri,

      Many issues I have cannot be solved by software. If nothing else came to fruition from my list, I’d want the interchangeable sensors. A Nikon D300 is a fine example of a Jack of all trades; a good camera for many situations, but not an exceptional camera at anything. Following the Nikon example, take the D3: A camera that is exceptional at low-light, fast shooting. If you are a sports photographer or photojournalist this might be the best camera ever. Imagine if you make a living shooting concerts. Now, what happens if you want to seriously pursue landscape photography? You’d be better off with a higher resolution sensor such as that in the D3x. So now you have to purchase two cameras when the only difference between them is the sensor.

      As for B&W, I also prefer having the freedom to convert my colour images to B&W on the computer, but there are many B&W photographers who would rather enjoy the benefits of shooting with a dedicated B&W sensor. And that’s the whole point: by trying to build cameras that please everyone, you end up making cameras that don’t please anyone 100%.

  4. Interesting discussion! As a complement, I would recommend a look at Mike Johnston’s T.O.P. post on the concept of a “simple” DSLR and the reasons why it will never work:
    http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2009/05/why-there-will-never-be-a-simple-dslr.html

  5. For me, I like the idea. Consider that you buy a particular camera and have the option to buy various digital sensor backs or cards for that model. I used to love to shoot KodaChrome 25. There isn’t a sensor available that can match the colour and dynamic range of that slide film. If I could look at a camera and purchase a second back that offered me a specialized chip which did ISO12-200 and the sharpness, dynamic range and depth that the old slide film offered, I’d be buying that camera today.

    Sure it’s not going to last forever and issues like batteries, matching shutters and power supplies will effect how many upgrades to an older body can be done. But there are still dozens of possibilities for add-on modules for a particular platform.

    The radio trigger idea is spot on. I’d love to have all my flashes with built in triggers and have the camera supplier align themselves with a particular transmitter company so I could buy extra recievers and transmitters for the old flashes and studio strobes I now own.

    Dedicated focusing screen, viewfinders and plug in variations for the grips would be a dream.

  6. This is hilarious. Something must obviously be in the water because as I prepare my series on the “concept” SLR here comes Mis and Mike Johnston and who knows how many others with articles on the same issue.

    While I like a lot of your points, the basic idea of a modular camera is unlikely to become a reality at anything like the price level we wish for. Maybe in medium format, yes. Maybe for video cameras, yes. (Check out RED.) But for smaller SLRs the extra fittings and standardisation would at least double the cost (I imagine) while also driving up the size of the unit.

    As for open firmware, that is a great idea for users but a tech support nightmare. I do hope it happens but think I might finally take a great PIF (Pigs In Flight) photo first.

    • Robin,

      I started writing this article about 2 months ago. I finished it last week and scheduled it for this week. Then the day before it was going live Michael Johnston publishes his (sort of) similar article on the impossibility of the simple camera. Spooky…

      I look forward to your “concept” articles!

      • I think I know why we’re all thinking the same thing at the same time. It has a lot to do with the possibilities opened up by the EVF cameras and micro four-thirds. And also it is clear that SLRs have gone about as far as they can in this direction. Soon all people will talk about are the video features, the GPS and the MP3 quality… nothing about the pictures. Much like no-one talks about the phone quality of their phone any more — instead it’s all about the MP3 features and, ironically, the camera.

        I have written four articles in the last few days, equally targeting design and the new K-7. The latest, Ten Interface Design Principles, is the most important and a good place to start. I too have been working in this direction for some time, and will have a couple more installments yet.

  7. Very bold and innovative arguments! Gives food for thought…

    I’m probably not alone in wishing that I would be able to use a b&w sensor.

  8. I am thinking for camera bodies to accomodate the interchangability and expansion of internal parts like a PC casing, it can get a lot more bulkier than current body designs.

    Perhaps a better point of reference would by laptops – they are mobile computers, but their upgradability is still incredibly limited by ever-changing designs and dimensions. Heck, the Li-on batteries and optical drive modules of past models seldom work for the next generation of even the same series. I do not know how many times the Dell Inspiron has gone through complete overhaul designs, for example. I have been waiting for years, and we have not come close to a market for building DIY laptops.

    Not to say i don’t want this dream, i’d love it! But i do suspect the engineering challenges for standardising designs to allow for modularity with such small devices are still be too great for any vendor to justify pursuing.

  9. Deepu Mukundan Says:

    I like the idea of modular DSLR’s. In a span of past 2 years, I saw myself hunting for the latest camera from Nikon (sorry I’m a Nikon shooter :) ) because I started to see that my D80 features turned out to a lot less compared to the newer models. Agreed that I made a hasty decision to buy one the first time, but if I could have upgraded firmware, added a couple cool features, I would not have been so tempted to buy a new one, but finally the fact that I’m missing many of the goodies forced me into buying the D700. Consider the fact that D80 cost me only 1400’ds, and D700 with all associated goodies cost !@@#@#$#%$, I would have gladly settled for couple upgrades (“If they were cheaper”). Yes the idea of modularization and upgrades fascinated me much…What I take from this is that, if such things could have been there, it would keep most people from buying new cameras, to upgrading, keeping some of the current stuffs they have, until they reach a point where no more customizations can match one of the new unique features that one of the latest models could offer…..I believe it helps to prolong the life of the current equipment…..keeping in mind that changing lenses is also a form of modularization… ;)
    Good thoughts everyone!

    • Deepu,

      Seeing as you went from an APS-C camera to a full-frame, I don’t think modularisation could have helped you. So you can rest assured that you did the right thing by spending lots of money upgrading your camera kit :D

  10. I would just like to Point out that HP and Dell Do not offer as ‘customisation’ of their PCs outside of the US, especially laptops.

    What good will all the modularity be if they only offer one set model for foreign countries.

    • JoeyConta,

      “outside of the US” is a pretty big place, and as blanket statements go, yours is wrong. For Dell’s part, the EU and Scandinavian markets have exactly the same freedom of choice for customisation as have US customers. Just check their international websites.
      And I know for sure that my Dell Inspirion M 2400 has a set of features that doesn’t come as standard choices. :-)

  11. Interesting ideas, but the question is whether they withstand a cost-benefit analysis. How much better would a dedicated B&W sensor capture images than a Bayer sensor? What about body-based image stabilization?

  12. I linked through to your blog from Giannni Galassi’s and was scrolling through to see what you are about when I found this post. I posted my similar thought on 12/20/09 http://uncorkedimaging.wordpress.com/2009/12/20/looking-forward/

    Let’s hope that the camera manufacturers are listening!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: