11.06.2016

An anecdotal story about "build quality." An often uttered "feature of cult-y cameras.

In response to recent debates about the relative value of the new Olympus EM-1.2 camera many commenters were quick to trot out "build quality" as one of that camera's winning features. I get the whole idea. Here's what build quality seems to mean to most of us: The seams where external parts of the camera come together are almost seamless. The fit of the interconnecting parts is so precise that the hobbyist carpenter or machinist can hardly believe it. The camera has a certain heft that people associate with the use of stronger or "better" materials. The knobs and dials seem to be made of metal and have a "dampened" response that makes them feel more "assured" and sturdy. The cameras have a reputation for some combination of waterproof-ness or sturdiness.

It's very important to understand that all of these "features" are subjective and the quality quotient cannot be objectively measured. We don't have ready access to rates of repair or MTBF. We are allowing our sensory input to prejudice our "feelings" about a camera, inferring absolute qualities that might not exist or, if they do exist, might not exceed the same list of qualities in similar products.

Here I will tell a story and hope that the camera buyers can make a connection.

Many, many years ago, when I was an electrical engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin I supplemented the money my parents contributed to my education and upkeep with a part time job at a hi-fi store. For people too young to remember hi-fil stores were specialty shops that sold home audio equipment. Stereo receivers, turntables, cassette decks, reel to reel recording machines, loudspeakers, component amplifiers, pre-amplifiers and tuners.

At the beginning of my part time sales career almost every
stereo receiver and amplifier used very, very heavy transformers in their power supplies and some used additional wire wound transformers at the output stage to the speakers. This made the units extremely heavy and added a lot of expense to the product. Eventually the wise use of diode rectifiers allowed for efficient transformer-less power supplies and were embraced by most audio equipment manufacturers. It should have been a godsend to the mid-to-higher echelons of product makers because it reduced power consumption, reduced heat issues, reduced the need for large chassis size and heavy duty construction. The reduced weight would also reduce shipping costs.

But there was a fly in the ointment. Legions of potential buyers, credit cards and checkbooks at the ready, would come in and evaluate the gear. In some part of their evaluation they would "heft" the unit in a subconscious measure of the "build quality." The newer, lighter units were uniformly thought to be of less quality. We heard lots of complaints that the manufacturing had been cheapened. That the new products would certainly not be as reliable or might not even have the same sound quality because of the negative ramifications of reduced weight (and in some cases, bulk).

The very next generation of products from nearly every maker were built to be much heavier. We staffers would open up the chassis and look to see what might be different only to find lots of dense but meaningless metal structure that would add back weight in lieu of the now absent transformers. Customers liked the newer units just fine and even commented on how much better the sound quality was. The reality, according to the tech reps and sales reps, is that nothing in the audible pipeline had changed. No changes had been made to the circuit designs or components. Where the rubber met the road both generations of the products were identical.

Inside nearly every camera from Japan is a Copal shutter. As a system component they also come with their own peripheral circuits. The shutters in almost every mirrorless camera are more or less the same in the same format cameras. Some are spec'd differently, may have some different features, and I am sure there are different performance classes, but I am equally sure that, across brands, Copal or Seiko are not making tiers of similar products with different reliability aim points or unit to unit performance metrics. The real guts of almost every mirrorless camera are integrated circuits. Microprocessors and micro controllers that come from Six Sigma plants and have failure rates mostly measured in single digit parts per million. And anymore most sensors are from Sony factories and largely interchangeable with same format cameras in other brands.

The reality is that a camera like the EM1-2 might have better "feel" and more insinuation of build quality just because the maker decided that these attributes might be important to you, the camera buyer, on an emotional level, and so they've increased the thickness and density of the baseplate, the internal metal skeleton, the top plate and any other part where adding density would be easy and inexpensive. The increase in weight translates to density and, because of our consumer training, to our belief that the density connotes higher quality materials and finish.

You can't really see "build quality" where it actually counts; in the making of the circuit boards and the running of wire harnesses. The electronic interconnection points. All of which makes conversations about how "solid this thing feels in my hands!!!!" more or less meaningless -- except of the placebo effect. Or our collective cultural training of what quality might feel like...

I'm not saying that Olympus's new camera isn't built to higher physical standards than, say, the new Fuji but the only difference it probably makes is in the happiness you get from it's tactile feedback. Under the hood? Not so much. Copal shutters in both, Sony sensors in both. (assumed, not researched).

I'm illustrating the article here with a photo of a Sony A7Rii and a Rokinon lens. The camera is nicely heavy but I'd wager it's mostly the internal metal cage that accounts for the weight. The "build quality" is all about making sure the sensor module is perfectly plano-parallel to the lens flange. That's not something you can see with your eyes or feel through the external shell. The Rokinon lens sports a dense plastic barrel but this tells you nothing about the quality of optical element assembly. I know from reading Roger's columns on LensRental.com that the interiors of the Zeiss lenses I own are also mostly plastic but they put on a metal shell because they know we expect it. Not because it is a superior engineering choice.

I'm not making a value judgement between one camera company and another here, I just wanted to point out that we're not always rational as we assess the more ephemeral "features" of the gear we lust after. See: Hasselblad Lunar.......

18 comments:

Matthew Nolan said...

Talk of build quality with Olympus is misleading. I have owned both the EM-1 and the Em-10 - neither of which were subjected to heavy use. After about a year on both the EM-1 and Em-10 the front and rear dials started to play up in that you would turn them but nothing would happen to the settings. After trying 3-4 times something would catch and then the settings would change. As a street photographer this was frustrating and unacceptable. I investigated on the internet and found this was a known problem - remedies ranged from turning the dials back and forth 100 times (which I did) to returning for service.

Of course nothing like this has ever happened on my Nikons, or for that matter my GH-4. I agree that a lot of this build quality stuff is just looks. As a side note Olympus asking $2800 (Australian) for the new EM-1, which is twice the previous price, is breathtaking. I would have no confidence I was getting value for money based on experience with Olympus products.

Dr. Singer said...

I have a long-running philosophy that I developed just after grad school, that it is the $0.39 part that kills the $10,000 machine. That's why you never hear people talk about "superior build quality" in the same glowing reviews as the "Where can I find a replacement for the [battery door/rubber flap/popup flash latch]"?

Phil said...

As a practicing design engineer with a long career behind me, I'd be a tad offended by your comments if I still cared about the perception of the masses towards engineering. Luckily I don't.

You are right in that the heft (or lack thereof) of a product is no accident, it is the result of deliberate choices made early in the design effort. But to think that it is achieved by adding material here and there for the sake of it is an insult to every design engineer. I place that in the same bag as "Nice camera, that must be why you get such nice pictures!"

I won't write a book here, instead I'll simply point out that quality is never an accident. And that's true in every trade, even yours — ours just happens to be a tad more involved.

J said...

Don't ignore the effect that mass has on damping and absorbing vibrations in cameras and hi-fi equipment. This is often the cause of perceived improvements in performance and not just the placebo effect. Plus a heavier camera is easier to hold steady which can translate into sharper pictures

Edward Richards said...

Ah HiFi. An excellent analogy. For cameras, glass filled plastic or carbon probably makes a more dimensionally stable camera that is also more resilient to damage. Maybe if we thought about cameras like racing bikes and worried about how much they weight - a much more useful measure of quality for users.

Hans said...

Hello

I would like to contribute to your blog. As a former salesperson of office supplies in the mid 1990s it was common among telephone companies to put metal rods in the reciever of old school table top telephone just to bring heft and quality feel of the telephone models with a higher price tag. I would also like to acknowledge the good longevity of Samsung cameras and lenses. The samsung kit feels like "all cheap plastic" but hasn't yet failed me once for the six years of continuous (ab)use, I am sorry to say that my premium priced Nikon camera, D300, have had a lot more hiccups in the same period and still do and the hiccups doesn't seem to go away either, fancy that...but I still love my Nikon because of every other good aspect of it, since it belong to a mature, readily available camera system even insofar as incandescent filter for the speedlight.

Hans

Kirk Tuck said...

Ah Phil... You and I both know that good engineers design for simplicity and quality but we both also know that product managers and the folks who translate your work to final product can make A LOT of changes to streamline production, make cost savings, substitute materials, etc. Not a comfortable thing for engineers to admit, especially if they work for certain companies. I have friends in product design at a major U.S. computer maker who cringe when they see what happens to their elegant and thoughtful designs once they get through all the other departments and the hit the production floor. Yes, photography doesn't have nearly as much detail work involved as designing a consumer product but no, we don't have people in our own house changing our work to hit a price point or a "look and feel" point. And, yes, many companies have added heft with crap.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, did you handle Leica SL recently? It's an absolute tank and their T model is made from 1 solid piece of metal. Consequently as J said above, it adds to stability and ultimately to sharper pics. Olympus buids E-M1 with full magnesium alloy body and pioneered 5-axis in-body image stabilization system to assist photographers in their various endeavours sometimes without need for a tripod.

However, I agree, build quality is a relative word.

Michael Matthews said...

Ah, they're still at it in the audio world. Just pick up the extension speaker on your Tivoli radio. Hmmm.

Kirk Tuck said...

I would never disagree on the need for a rigid and somewhat dense chassis for a fully mechanical camera, or even one with a complex, moving mirror coupled with a fully mechanical shutter. Just like a heavy platter on a turntable. But the analogy stretches a bit when we demand density and weight in things like MP3 players and cameras with fully electronic shutters. I would suggest that the heavy glass in good lenses provides much density for smooth handholding and that I.S. provides more.

As to the Leica SL and SL2 it's good to remember that good manual focus depended on tight body calibration, that the moving mirrors required dampening, that the optical finder was a huge and heavy hunk of slivered glass, etc. That the T is made from a solid piece of aluminum is cool but probably has no effect on final image quality.

I remember the Kodak DCS 760 camera with batteries coming in at around five pounds and I can't remember a single photographer bemoaning the weight reduction of the next generation. At some point sheer weight takes its toll on our ability to handhold steadily over time.....

David Smith said...

These are excellent points for those young enough to still believe that they make purely rational choices, or for we graybeards to factor into our emotional choices. Since you have correctly argued that there's nothing rational to choose between cameras today, when faced with a choice, I'm left with "How does it make me feel?" I'm a retired (i.e., fixed income) quasi-engineer (race cars, then software) and lifelong camera nut. My film cameras are very old Leicas (a IIIa and an M3) and Nikons (FTn and FE). Excellent price and mechanical/optical rationality combined with "they make my eyes and hands smile" emotional payoff. My digital choices are related - a Nikon D7000 and a Fujifilm x100s. Both were old enough when I bought them that I felt OK (emotion) buying them, are capable of stretching my abilities (rational) and both feel good in my hands and at my eye. To be completely honest, there's some "baby duck syndrome" at work here, too. As cars go, if I were silly rich I'd have a '55 Testa Rosa, a 250 GTO or a Miura instead of whatever they're making now. Slower, less reliable, but I worked on/with them in the day and they're my "normal".

Bruce Rubenstein said...

"Eventually the wise use of diode rectifiers allowed for efficient transformer-less power supplies..."

Too bad that you didn't finish getting your engineering degree, because then you might have known that diode rectifiers had nothing to do with the design of the power supply. What probably changed was the switch from linear power supplies to switching power supplies that don't require large transformers. I know this has nothing to do with the point of your story, but it probably would have worked better to point out the time and effort that car companies spent on designing the doors to close with a "high quality" thump.

amolitor said...

The AK-47 is one of the most reliable guns ever designed, and you can practically build the damned things with tin cans and a hacksaw.

Virtually all of the actually desirable things in this avenue (well, the one thing: reliability) comes from design-for-reliability, and that's got almost nothing to do with how it actually looks. I mean, if there are huge holes in the side through which you can see ribbon cables and whatnot, I guess that's bad, but within reason, you know.

I have a cheap polycarbonate camera body. I am pretty sure, based on some, um, testing, they built it to bounce upon impacts from a standard counter/table height onto a standard floor, with the kit lens attached. Polycarbonate won't deform, it either breaks or bounces. So you build it heavy enough to bounce under whatever test circumstances you've picked out. You could build it heavy enough to survive gunshots or drops from airplanes, but generally you go for table-top heights.

That's design.

DaveW said...

Experience tells me that Olympus cuts corners on the QC aspects of its production system. Nice designs, nice finish, but the only cameras - the only ones - that have let me down in the digital era have been Olympus ones, specifically an E-M5, and my current Pen F. The E-M5 failed completely after 6 months, necessitating a return to their European repair facility in Portugal, from where it was simply replaced. No questions asked, no quibble: such failures (aperture control, LCD, bezel) were apparently commonplace in that model. The Pen F? Lovely looking piece of kit, but the only mirrorless camera I've ever owned to back focus. Something tells me they only check this vital parameter by sampling the run in their factory. Fuji, Sony, Panasonic, Nikon cameras? Never a problem, ever. I do get that Olympus now has to recover significant investment money from smaller production runs, but better build quality? Don't buy it.

Mike Rosiak said...

Ah, hi-fi stores. Back in the days when "McIntosh" meant bulky, heavy power amps with three big black transformer cases, and enough large vacuum tubes to heat a small room. I bought my share of Monster cables, and next to my turntable (rarely used) I still have a Discwasher brush and a bottle of Discwasher D4 cleaning fluid. (Is distilled water really too "hungry" to use safely on a vinyl record?)

My "golden ears" these days take tiny #312 batteries. Their cost per gram is many multiples of metallic gold's price.

Mike Rosiak said...

By the way, Kirk, just recently started, an attempt to publish after a preview results in an "Error 400."

Doesn't do that if you just publish straightaway.

Moonage Daydream said...

There are online sites that tear down the latest iPhones to examine actual build quality and "repair-friendliness". I don't know if there are any sites that do this for camera equipment in a systematic way.

Moonage Daydream said...

My "golden ears" these days take tiny #312 batteries. Their cost per gram is many multiples of metallic gold's price.

Mike, have you tried this source?

http://www.ebay.com/itm/48-Hearing-Aid-Batteries-Kirkland-Signature-Premium-Zinc-Air-Sizes-10-13-312-675-/231844964840