2.28.2010

What would I really like to see in the next pro camera from Olympus?

     Paris Fashion Shows, 1995.  Louvre Carrousel.  Atsuro Tamaya Show.  Contax Camera.     135mm lens.  Manual focus.  Manual exposure.  Manual frame advance. ©Kirk Tuck

My friend and fellow photographer, Bill Beebe, recently sent me a short article outlining what he'd like to see in the next generation of Olympus digital cameras.  It's a solid bit of thinking and you can read it here:   http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2010/02/olympus-e-series-dslr-wishlist.html  That started me thinking about what I'd like to see from Olympus if and when they revise the e3 and come out with a new camera aimed at professional and advanced non-professional photographers.

My knee jerk reaction was the thought that I already had everything I wanted in a camera but I didn't think that would make a very compelling blog so I went out for nice, Sunday walk with my wife and pondered the question.  And I came to the conclusion that I'd be happy with two totally different pathways from Olympus.

The first path would be what I describe in the caption above.  A camera that has a minimum of controls and complexity.  A huge finder that is optimized for manually focusing lenses. A mode dial with two settings:  Manual and Aperture Priority.  A basic, but huge center AF sensor that could AF in the dead of a moonless night.  And the only file type would the .DNG.   No major choices would be made in camera.  No jpegs.  No art filters.  No screen overlays.  The camera would be as straightforward as an older Porsche 911.  Pre-turbo, pre-air conditioning, and certainly pre-automatic transmission.

Can you imagine how fun a camera like that would be?  No fiddling and twiddling when you should be shooting and schmoozing.  It would work out well.  Only tightly wound sports photographers need 10 frames per second and only neophytes need programmed exposure.  Only bored people really need art filters.   And your client can always wait a few moments for the files to be rendered into jpegs via a good and simple converter.  But in many, many ways a design like that would reduce the interface between the artist and the camera.  That's essentially the appeal of the Leica M cameras.  That was definitely the appeal of the Nikon F and the Nikon F2 and the Olympus OM-1.  Everything else you put on a camera is just sales bait.  Real photographers don't need that stuff.

The lack of both firmware and physical complexity yields a tool that is elegant and reliable.  No searching thru sub-menus to find out why the shutter won't release.  No time lost trying to change focusing spots.  Just an amazing and instant classic.

My one nod to contemporary features? The inclusion of Image Stabilization.  That's something that, once we have it, we can never live without.

Think this is nuts?  Have a pet "setting" that you just can't live without?  You might just need to practice and learn the nuts and bolts a bit better.  The above image was done "primitive" but it works as well as any AF super camera image would have worked.  I was shooting ISO 400 Agfapan at ISO 320.  The settings were probably f2.8 (wide open) and 1/125th of a second.  IS didn't exist back then.  And the model never stopped moving.  Back then we practiced focusing as a craft and an art and didn't run to our forums whining about front focus or back focus.  Front focus meant you tried to anticipate the movement but you were a little early.  Back focus meant you were a little late.  No IS meant you learned how to hold your camera still when you squeezed the shutter.  No auto exposure function meant you judged the light and locked in the exposures.  I know, I know,  I'm living in the past.  But if I was a pilot I'd still want to actually know how to fly that 747 just in case the computer decided to go south while the plane heads north.

So the first path is how I feel I want to go when I'm being all  rugged and self-reliant.  Kind of a  conservative "we don't need no government/camera company intrusion into our photo taking lives" take on photography.

When I get rational and accept that once automatic transmission is introduced people are going to be loathe to forgo the coffee and actually shift with that right hand, I have another vision of what camera manufacturers (and Olympus in particular) should do when designing cameras.  It's similar to what BMW found out in the 1990's.  Performance is great but what Americans really want is lots and lots of cup holders.  And a really good stereo.  And a smooth ride.  So much for designing performance tools.

In that vein I also have a vision for the perfect professional DSLR.

It starts with a super high quality EVF (electronic viewfinder) with zillions of pixels and no time lag.  Why? Because you'll be able to previsualize every effect and setting you make to the image before you even click the shutter.  Change the color balance?  You'll see it in the finder.  What to know how hot the exposure is?  You can see the histogram in the view finder without taking your eye away.  It's like magic.  It works well on the EP-2.  Make it two generations and more premium processing better and I guarantee you that no one who looks through the finder will ever go back to the compromise that is the Optical viewfinder.  Really.

All those people who swear they'll never buy a camera with an EVF will be throwing credit cards at the company that does this first and best.  No doubts.  I'd stake my (post 2009) 401k on it.

Next up?  A sensor that does 3200 ISO with little to no noise and also yields a big ass dynamic range.  Me?  I'll take dynamic range over ISO every day of the week.  I don't really care about the noise in any of the cameras currently on the market but......I've used several medium format cameras and a Fuji S5 and I've seen how good the dynamic range can be.  That's what I want in my camera.  Screw HDR.  If you have 12 stop range in your base exposure you've already got HDR without the seat time that pushes your evolution into nerdism and makes your thighs and belly all jiggly.  With a small sensor you're going to have to make compromises somewhere but D-range isn't the place to do it.

On my next flagship Olympus I want something that they already have figured out.  I want the ability to fine tune focus on my lenses.  They've implemented this perfectly on the e30.  No reason they can't do it on the eX.

Faster frame rates?  Nope.  I don't need em and most likely neither do you.  A slower frame rate means a shutter that last longer and is more reliable.  I'll take that.  I do want variable aspect ratios.  I have that in my EP-2 and it's changed my life for the better by giving me back the right to do square images.  And I can see them in the EVF.  No compromises necessary.

I would like to see all the camera manufacturers adopt the .dng files as the standard raw format.  Every new camera could be used in raw the day it's delivered in the elite programs.  Capture One.  ACR.  Lightroom.  Not some software afterthought.  Hey camera companies!  Be brave.  Open up that standard.  Help you customers get the most out of your cameras and they may love you better.  The only thing you have to lose is a few incremental sales of some really crappy software that you wouldn't wish on your mother.  And if the standard was truly opened the elite software programs would rush to optimize the hell out of it which would make your cameras look better and better.  All the raws are based on tiffs anyway.  Who do you think you are kidding?

Silent shutters.  Without a moving mirror (remember, we're going EVF) the only component that makes noise is the shutter and you could cut half the shutter noise by implementing a feature that Nikon first rolled out on the F4====silent.  Slow down the shutter charge and you'll eliminate a ton of noise.  Give us that option.  And with the 4:3rds cameras you have a natural advantage over FF cameras in the geometry and travel distance of the shutter curtains.  You made them quiet in the e1, you can do it again in the eX !!!!!!!!!!!  Nothing ruins the moment like a bingy-bangy shutter slap.  That's why I'm not shooting a D3 or a D700 right now.

Finally, if you are going to give me an EVF and no mirror you might as well really give some thought to the whole subject of video.  It's going to happen, big time, whether you like it or not.  We need full manual controls.  That includes shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and focus.  The EP2 is a great start but eventually those millions of people who want to start making fun videos will realize one very important thing.........It's the sound that really matters.  You have to give us manual control over microphone levels and you need to get real and give us a professional way to import the signal from a professional, external microphone or mixer.  You just have to.  No arguments.  You'll sell zillions more than Canon and Nikon if you just put two XLR connectors on the bottom of the optional (and highly profitable) accessory battery grip.  Make it easy for us to do great work and your cameras will look better and better.

No one really cares about price point if the product is superior.  If you build it right you can spend years dribbling down features to lower price point products.  Sub the XLR's for 3.5mm mini plugs in the next model down.  Give us back a legitimate reason for buying the flagship model.  Give us the right features.  Give us reliability and give us professional interfaces.  If we screw up the pan or the transition or miss the focusing point that's our problem.

There are a number of reasons why the 4:3rds sensor size is the optimum size for lens development and for video capture.  So far Olympus and Panasonic have stumbled and missed on making these arguments.  I don't care if a camera or lens is smaller or lighter than anyone else's.  I want to know that the sensor geometry makes it easier for the lens designer to design sharper, faster and better lenses and why.  I want to know why a FF sensor is a distant second to FT sensors because the 4:3rd sensors yield the optimum DOF for video and focus depth.

That's about it.  I still don't care about art filters or fast frame rates or "super lock on continuous sports focus."  That's not relevant to most shooters.  I want a camera that's good to hold and good to shoot.  Something like an Olympus e1 with the guts of an EP-2.  And a better, faster EVF.  Hit that and we're all done.  But really?  I'm happy as a clam with my e30 and e3 and so are my clients.  Want a wake up call?  Most of the documentation shots in my fourth book were done with a point and shoot camera.  No big, fast, angry camera needed.

With the world going to HD TV screens as their primary media everything over a certain file size is just  tail fins on a Cadillac.  Bicycles for fishes.

Stay tuned. It's getting fun out there as the economy recovers......