10.26.2015

The newest "retro" trend in camera design... Bigger really is better.


Let me be really clear about one thing. I love the mirrorless cameras for the EVFs and all the power and convenience that gives you when shooting but I have often railed against the trend to grow cameras smaller. I'm so happy to see a bit of a move in the other directions. Both Panasonic and Leica have come out with cameras that have more "real estate." More places to put your hands and more places to put full sized, vital plugs. More interior space to wick away heat from sensors and circuit boards. More of everything. 

The whole camera size preference cuts across two intersecting cohorts. On one hand we have professionals and on the other enthusiasts (everyone else is shooting with their cellphone now). As the pros age up they'd love to have lighter and lighter cameras and lenses because it's a shoulder and lower back saver. The smaller weight is also an energy conserver. But even the most physically feeble pros still need certain camera parameters in order to do their jobs correctly. They need to be able to have access to controls, to be able to hold the cameras correctly and to use them with flashes, remotes, plugged in video monitors and also tethered to their computers. As one reader pointed out, when buying a shrunken camera, like the Sony A7 series, you get a nice camera and a bag full of compromises. The A7s do nice video but.... the batteries run down quickly (too small), mini and micro HDMI cables break and get loose at a much higher rate than the full sized HDMI cables (more contact area more torque distribution, etc.), there's insufficient internal space to maximize heat management and, since the cameras have full frame sensors there is absolutely no weight or size savings when it comes to nice, elegant, fast-glass. FF lenses are just always going to be heavier. 

So, you get a mini-camera that's horribly hobbled for pro shooting. I'm sure this is what Leica was considering when they designed the SL. I think it's a sleeper video camera that will break out and be the next step fun the hybridization process between pro stills and videos. Why? Because there's enough room to hang stuff on the camera. And I think most users have issues with the size of the smaller cameras where handling is involved. Too much finger, too little camera. 

Most of the same arguments can be made for the GX8 from Panasonic. The body is bigger and it is more comfortable to hold and use. I'll also bet that it handles heat distribution from video more efficiently than older body designs. If it were all about handling I'd be smiling more about the GX8 but I'm still pissed that they went back to a weird size for the microphone inputs and capriciously elected to not include a headphone jack.

I notice that the cameras the a lot of serious photographers still use are not shrinking in size. The D810 is an ample package, as are the D4s and the Canon 1DX. The Canon 5D line is still a full size camera body style. And the Nikon D750, while measuring smaller still feels like a full grown camera. 

I love the Olympus EM-5.2 but I'd love it even more if was bigger. That's because I love the features. The stuff like killer IBIS, a great EVF and a nice movie mode. But I'd love it even more if it was integrated into a body that had batteries that lasted through whole video interview or half a day shooting stills. And if I'm carrying only one camera and a nice lens I don't really care about the weight. I'd rather have the excellent handling. A nice, good fitting outline to wrap my hands around...

But there is another whole cohort out there that loves the idea of "small" and drives some parts of the market. These are the users whose overriding priority for a camera are whether it fits in the pockets of their tight pants. I guess this group is why Sony is making a killing on the RX100IV.  I think the RX100IV and its ilk are transition cameras. They are cameras for people (who own only one camera and..) who thought at one time that they might want to be real photographers but who have decided it's too much work so they are downscaling from DSLRs to high end compacts on their inevitable transition to being a phone photographer. 

Most styles and designs are like swinging pendulums that overshoot the mark of balance and swing into silly and excessive self-parody. Cameras are no different a fashion statement. The phone is one extreme while the medium format cameras and ultra pro 35mm style bodies like the D4s and 1Dx are the other extreme. Leica is wisely returning to the middle ground. To stasis and to the normal order of things where the tools fit the hand as well as the imaging purpose. 

A couple of analogies about size: While manufacturers could make framing hammers much smaller and lighter the skinny handles wouldn't fit in beefy hands well, would not provide a secure grip; and a smaller, lighter hammer head wouldn't drive a 16 penny nail worth a damn.... 

I'm okay with smaller sensors. That's cost savings and depth of field on the opposite end of the spectrum from full frame dof control. I love eves over optical finders. But I never thought I needed to trade those attributes for body size. Like most pampered North Americans, I want it all just exactly the way I want it. Until I change my mind. Again. 

I prefer bigger cameras, up to a point. In fact, I hope the makers of cameras don't overreact to the swinging pendulums of camera fashion and start making giant cameras. But they might be able to sell them for higher dollars. We like big packages and still believe that bigger is better. I saw that this weekend at the Formula One races in Austin. The parking lots were filled with big Suburban SUVs and pick-up trucks. Big cars for big people. hmmmm. Any camera makers paying attention?

Besides Leica and Panasonic I mean....

11 comments:

Gordon Lewis said...

I get that you're framing an argument, and in doing so you make many valid points. That said, I respectfully disagree with the implication that bigger is always better. It certainly isn't when you're trying to get onto an airplane with a super-telephoto lens as carry-on luggage or if, as a result of too many years of handling heavy equipment, you've developed pinched nerves or carpal tunnel syndrome. Every camera and lens systems has its tradeoffs. That's why choice is better. I notice that for any given shoot you have several different cameras to choose from -- and why shouldn't you?

theaterculture said...

Of course I'm writing as somebody whose income and involvement in photography only really justify owning one system, but the size of the EM5ii is perfect for me. The smallness of the Pens means that, as a walk/bike to work kinda guy, I can always have a camera with me - I'm still a bit of a hero at the academic department where I work for the lovely images of our Director with a very eminent scholar visiting from the other side of the continent only a few months before his death (at 94) that are streets beyond the iPhone snaps everybody else got. And with the EM5 range there's the battery grip option, which improves handling and brings the lifespan up to reasonable; to me that's a "best of both worlds" proposition...

Wolfgang Lonien said...

I'm with Gordon here - and with you.

While nothing fits my hands like my trusty old Olympus E-520, sometimes - depending on the "job" - smaller is better. Let me try if I can add an image here to explain (and if not, let me link to it):

https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5735/21815984593_3345747b86_z_d.jpg (insert doesn't work here on blogger)

If you take real huge lenses like telescopes, you'll need super strong equatorial mounts, since every millimeter of movement at the sensor plane makes light years up there. And to not stress the mount and telescopes too much, smaller is better in this case. For planetary images, even the crop factor helps...

Dave Jenkins said...

As someone wisely said, "Less is more, up to a point, after which it's less again."

Whatever. Smaller and lighter definitely work for me. I've recently been commissioned by a major publisher to do a guidebook to the backroads and byways of Georgia. Unless Santa drops a Leica SL in my Christmas stocking, it's likely that most of the photos will be made with my EM-5s.

Kepano said...

As the one who made the A7s comments on the previous blog entry, I should add that size is not a binary decision point. While I'm no PJ, much of my work is documentary in nature, and when I'm traveling for NGO assignments, I always have a smaller camera to augment whatever my main system happens to be. That small camera is currently an X100s or a first generation RX100.

In that class of camera, the Ricoh GR, Sony RX1, and Leica Q look very interesting. I want a small camera that performs as quickly as a DSLR - a big chipper that can deliver clean, high ISO files.

I am curious about the RX100.4, but already own two Sony 1" cameras - the first gen RX100 and an X70 video camera. Low light performance is lacking. The X100s delivers nice images, but it's a bit slow.

Mike Tesh said...

I agree. I like bigger cameras. The Japanese, who primarly design our stills cameras, have a fascination with making things smaller to the point of unusable. Give me a big enough body for knobs and button over menu driven options anyday. So I'm not surprised it's Leica that comes out with a slightly larger body for a mirroless system.

It is rather silly to think that just because you take out the mirrorbox, everything should get smaller. Why? The benefits of an EVF stand on its own. 100% coverage, playback, menus, etc. Even if you change nothing else about the camera, including the flange to focal distance of the mount, the EVF is still a benefit. You don't need to shrink everything else down just because you remove the mirror and pentaprism.

tnargs said...

Photographers should take the size of their hands into account when choosing a camera.

Ken said...

Once again, a stellar post with great insight! Thanks!

Yep, the march toward smaller in all things tech is getting a bit crazy overall. I love my compact X100 / X100s...they are just right. Not too big, not too small, you can actually hold them and have all the control you need. The same with the Fuji X-T1, it's just about right for when it comes to size and weight. The lenses are not small, but they are not FF either but bigger than m4/3. Again, just about right. Even the Sony RX10 is a great size overall. This is what I need, the moderate sizes. Enough to hold onto, enough bolt on a few things (not a lot), small enough not to kill a back/shoulder and big enough to allow a good grip and ease of control.

I did try an RX100 (who hasn't? LOL) as the concept is sort of fun. But, it was way too fiddly for me. It lasted less than a week. It's more ergonomic to actually use an iPhone as a last ditch camera instead of the RX100 line. I've recently added the Typ 109 and it's right on the edge of being too small, but walks that fine line for a compact. Any smaller for me, nope.

Choose the tools for the job. Something like an Typ 109 (or LX100) is great for family travel. The X-T1 and Fujinon glass come out for more serious endeavors and the RX10 when audio (with line monitoring*) and video is paramount.

*Line monitoring / headphone jacks (and your comment on the GX8) : I didn't think this was such a huge deal until last week. I took my RX10 for a casual interview (with lavalier mic) and took headphones along to monitor. Wouldn't you know it? The lav mic (wired with a 25 ft cable) developed a fault somewhere in the connection to the camera. It started with some hissing, then crackling, then lost the left channel. Yikes! I NEVER would have known my audio was toast without a headphone jack. Luckily, I carried a spare lav and took it out of the factory fresh box it's been in for over a year and continued on / re-shot with excellent audio. From now on, this is a must-have, no negotiation feature, for anything I intend to use for video. Period.

Dennis said...

As someone who spends a lot of time on your blog talking about why you liked that camera yesterday, why you like this camera today (and why you'll like some other camera tomorrow), it's a shame to see you dismiss photographers who enjoy something you don't. I have to believe that almost every RX100 user either (a) owns a bigger camera and wants a quality compact or (b) used compacts previously and wanted a better one. I seriously doubt that more than a tiny handful are "people who thought at one time that they might want to be real photographers but who have decided it's too much work".

I suppose you were balanced about it. You also called the D4s and 1Dx one extreme of "silly and excessive self-parody".

Fact is, there are millions of consumers of photographyic gear out there, and all of it is right for some of them.

Rich said...

I second Dennis ! What a weird thing to say about the RX100 - I checked to see if I'd stumbled onto Rockwell's site. suspect they sell a lot of RX100's because they take wonderful quality photos. It's a bonus I can stuff it in a coat pocket when I don't want to lug around the 6D.

Anonymous said...

After years of people complaining about cameras that were too large we'll now have the backlash.
Just like the mobile phone industry which is in a growing phase after spending years trying to make them smaller.
I don't see a problem with small cameras, big cameras or in-between cameras.
They all serve a purpose.

When I was growing up they ranged from Minox through a range of 35mm compacts, various SLR sizes from Olympus OM to Canon F1 all the way to medium format and larger.
Nobody expected them to do the same job or to suit everybody.
Now we've got the same variety again.
Choose the model(s) that suit you for the tasks you have to do.