Cameras as art. Operation as a function of good design.

We love to trot out the idea that visual and industrial design is very secondary to the metrics of the camera's performance as measured in tests and comparison images. That the only acceptable rationale for buying or upgrading to a new camera is for some sort of measurable performance boost. Trading in weaker performance for strengths that you can see on a gauge.

But if you really ponder the whole jungle of available camera models and then look at who is buying what it becomes obvious that a number of people are making their primary buying decisions based on the creativity and expression of modern design as represented by various expressions from different camera makers.

As with cars, jeans, shoes and food, the market for cameras encompasses a big tent.

On one side you have traditionalists who are still buying the "jelly bean" (1980's Ford Taurus) styled cameras from Nikon and Canon. In another corner of the tent is
the faux 1950's Leica rangefinder style contingent whose cameras plagiarize the off center rangefinder window and utilitarian, rectangular body style.

And then there is the niche in the tent for paeans to past hits --- the Olympus OMD EM-5.2 is a more than glancing nod to the 1970's era OM-1. But there are cameras with no direct lineage that represent new species and new ways of designing (and using) cameras.

These cameras appeal to new adapters ----- not early adapters, but new adapters.

The camera that comes to mind for me isn't necessarily a radical new body design but a new thought design. And for me it is the Sony RX10ii.

It's not necessarily my favorite shooting camera but in some ways it is my favorite designed camera.

Why? Because its form follows it's functions. The reason for that camera to exist is for the lens, and that dominates the overall design and construction of the machine. Its form also speaks to the necessities of function as a driver for design. Why? In order to make the lens work the system had to be designed so that the size of the sensor matched a usable size for a fast and wide ranging set of of focal lengths encompassed in the zoom.

But the form also enabled the body space required to make the RX10ii a competitive and mostly professional video camera as well. Rather than limiting its overall appeal I believe that the inability of the user to change out the lens is another strength of the overall design of the camera --- and it's technical abilities are enhanced by that design choice.

Sony has had the product manager for the premium, RX1 series of cameras speak to the advantages of both matching a premium lens to an appropriate sensor but he speaks most eloquently and logically about the additional advantages of permanently coupling the lens to the sensor with the most precise tolerances. The advantages lie mostly in doing away with the multiple parts of the lens mount itself. This gives the camera maker almost infinitely greater control over planar tolerances as they regard the registration of the lens and the sensor by eliminating non-parallel engagement between the lens and sensor. The tighter tolerances mean that lenses deliver their peak performance to the sensor. There does not need to be an allowance for mechanical variances or a degree of adjustability as there is in every interchangeable lens system. Higher image quality can be consistently achieved.

Carrying this design ethos up and down the Cybershot line of Sony cameras is part of the value proposition of those cameras. The tight integration of lens and sensor adds value through technical superiority, giving these cameras the ability to get within striking range of the real world performance of ICL cameras with bigger sensors.

To see this in an industry wide light, Leica's marketing mantra of 70 years or more has been all about precision and excellent mechanical tolerances. So, to my way of thinking, Sony's fixed lens cameras achieve the excellent imaging results exactly because of their designs. Their willingness to remove lens interchangeability.

Design, in a macro sense, is driven by manufacturing momentum and the cost of manufacturing. But what Sony has done, across multiple lines of cameras, is to make a visually delightful series of cameras that all leverage the needs of high specifications into a chosen form factor.

The inherent value of a product's design is the blend of  smart and efficient industrial design in the service of usability and quality output. Is the camera fun to use? Does the design stay out of the way of the user's ability to operate the device smoothly? Does the design reflect the purpose of the machine? Does the design enhance function.

In essence every camera that comes to market is a compromise of some sort. Camera makers are constantly juggling size, weight, cost, performance, materials quality and haptics. A full frame camera with fast lenses can be a nice tool but the ultimate consumer must be satisfied to carry around a larger and heavier system. A smaller, mirrorless, full frame camera can provide a lower physical burden but to keep size and weight down the user would have to choose lenses that are smaller and lighter and the only way to do that is to make them with smaller apertures.

The fans of smaller mirrorless cameras can gain the advantages of extremely compact and easy to carry systems but will not be able to use larger sensors with whatever advantages those larger sensors provide.

Adding 4K video capabilities to a camera line greatly increases the design considerations and inevitable compromises further. A powerful enough processor to pull 4K video off the sensor and process it into a usable file requires more battery power and generates more heat. The ability to wick heat away from the sensor and processor seems to necessitate a bigger (or at least different) body style with different internal design considerations.

You can put 4K video capability in a tiny camera body like an a6300 but the very smallness of the camera limits its exterior surface area and reduces the number of physical controls that make creating video more effective. You can put 4K video in m4:3 or APS-C bodies but, again, because of size considerations you'll be using smaller and more fragile connectors for things like HDMI, microphones and headphone connectors. All these things serve as usability limitations for a certain subset of users.

In working with a number of DSLR style cameras over the past two or three years to create video I've grappled with each genre's shortcomings. I like the great image stabilization of the Olympus EM5.2 cameras but find the selection of control options is limited. While using the camera, handheld, the I.S. is a strength but when mounted on a tripod that strength is nulled and the tiny size of the unit becomes a hindrance. The codec of the D810 and D750 was very good and very compact, and the larger HDMI plugs on the cameras most welcome but even though the cameras are much larger their usability suffered because video was obviously an afterthought. The inability to fine focus while shooting (without a $1,000+ exterior digital recorder) was a show stopper. The lack of focus peaking kills their usefulness for quick set ups and moving camera shots. And, although the batteries are bigger than those of smaller cameras the cameras don't feature 4K video. With a mirror locked up the battery drain is as prodigious as the smaller cameras and battery life is easily bettered by a Panasonic GH4.

When I look at all the considerations of design and multi-task usage (video as well as still imaging) the camera that consistently shines for me is the RX10ii. The compromises are effective for me. The use of the smaller sensor means that the camera is not a prodigious low light machine. It also means that the RX10 family will not be regarded as a bokeh star either. But it assembles a range of features and performance metrics that, combined, make it extremely effective for its price point. (Remember, we mentioned pricing as an aspect of overall design considerations).

What I see in a camera like the RX10ii is an intentionality on the part of the designers to make video usability as important a part of the camera function as good still imaging. That's what sets it apart from cameras like the Sony a6300, the Nikons or the Canons. The lens is a logical grouping of focal lengths for both sides of the arts. The fact that the lens is permanently attached may be part of the reason why the files look so sharp and clean --- more effective tolerances in construction (just like the Panasonic fz 1000). The body is big enough to deal with internal heat generation and there are no overheating issues; even in 4K video right up the 29.99 minutes.

The body has enough space to accommodate an external, dedicated exposure compensation dial, and aperture and zooming controls. Added to that you get: focus peaking, zebras, powerful video profiles, and really good image stabilization -- even during video recording. The camera is small enough to not be a burden but the camera is large enough to handhold comfortably for a long period of time.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. For so much of what we do in video and still photography the RX10ii is a well designed tool. It's form follows real function. It's a new expression of camera art in a relatively new combination. The bridge camera space isn't really that old. Unlike DSLRs that trace their lineage all the way back to the Exacta, and the micro four thirds and APS-C rangefinder style cameras that trace their design heritage back to the earliest Leicas, the bridge cameras were introduced first by Olympus in the 1990s and their most obvious predecessors are the camcorders that dominated the video space for the last 25 years. And I think that last comparison is apt mostly because those cameras; the video camcorders, were set up and designed for fast and robust operation.

The RX10ii borrows some of that conceptual integration of direct control and the designer's intention that this camera be as effective in the video space as it is in the still photography space. With those objectives as a measure I think they've done a damn fine job. I can't wait to get my hands on a RX10iii to see just how well that new lens system works, and how much new capability it adds to our inventory of imaging solutions.

added after posting: Just got a call from my camera vendor; the RX10iii is here. Now looking at my general accounting to see if I can swing it without too much pain....


Larry Cordeiro said...


One of my other hobbies is watercolor painting, and I've always thought a good quality sable brush itself as a work of art. The look, and feel of a particular brush inspires me to make art. I get a similar feeling about my cameras. I do remember the original Olympus OM-1 well when it was introduced new, and no doubt Oly (and others) are trying to convey the same with their latest offerings.

Looking forward to reading about your testing of the new Sony.

Larry C.

John Camp said...

Hi, Kirk,
My biggest problems with cameras of this type is the size -- the RX10II is actually bigger than the Panasonic GX8 (body only), and depending on which lens you put on the GX8, about the same size, give or take. The GX8 gives you a larger sensor, a whole lens system, etc., and the lenses are pretty good. The GX8 is also easier to pack, because when you take it apart, the various elements are thinner. I travel with a business-style backpack, in which I have to carry a computer, power supply, and all the other crap that business travelers take with them, and putting in a camera that's large in all three dimensions can be a challenge. On the other hand, my GX8 (or an Olympus equivalent) means that the various pieces are usually not much more than two inches thick in at least one dimension, and you can slot them down between the backpack dividers. The RX10II (or III) strikes me as a good handy "car" camera, that you'd just leave in the car all the time, in a nice dust-proof case, for those moments when you don't have the system with you.

Mark Davidson said...

After the "jellybean" comments I was sure I was in for a paean to the Topcon Super D.

Kirk Tuck said...

Damn. I forgot all about the Topcon Super D... and those clever Miranda cameras..