If I could design a camera and bring it to market what would it be?

I've spent some time recently transitioning images from older hard drives to a new RAID array and it's given me some insight into which cameras I've leaned on the most in the last couple of years and some ideas about why. Even though I've owned APS-C cameras like the Sony a6000 and the a6300 that format represents the lowest number of candidates overall. The leaders of the pack are the Sony RX10iii and the Sony A7ii but, when cross-checking with my Lightroom info I find that the RX10iii is clearly my most popular choice and the camera with which I have been most prolific. And I hasten to write that it has also been the most profitable camera I've bought in a long, long time. 

I've pressed that camera into use for corporate videos as well as photographic still life work in the studio, theatrical photography, street photography, and even portrait work (although my own prejudices keep the numbers up for the Sony A7ii, where portraits are concerned --- working on that...). I've used it on ten of the thirteen most recent video assignments and it was also the only camera I took to Eeyore's Birthday Party this year. (Eeyore's is a huge, daylong party in one of Austin's central parks. It's a nod to Austin's "laid back" past).

While all the full framers gnash their teeth and wax on about the sanctity of the full frame sensors and pontificate about how "real pros always use full frame" I think the reality in the current world is quite different. The application targets have changed and the cultural markets have a different take on what constitutes a "great image." I would argue that, with the exception of traditional architecture and product work, authenticity and mobility are the buzz of the day. Being in the right place with a casual camera, yielding an emotionally accessible image, that rejects perfection for the sake of perfectionism, is the dominant style. 

So, if I were hired as a wacky, outside the box, camera designer for a flailing originalist company like Nikon, and given cart blanche to design a new product, what would it look like and what would it do?

I'd start with everything I like in the Sony RX10 series. I'd want to use the one inch sensor because it does so much right and it's a perfect size for video production while capable of delivering low noise, high sharpness results for traditional photography. Where I would shift would be to keep the body big, easily handling and capable of holding a large battery and dissipating heat I would make the lens interchangeable and deliver the product to market with two dedicated zoom lenses. The first would be a delicious wide to normal telephoto with a fast, constant aperture. 

I'd make it the equivalent of a 24-120mm with an f2.0 aperture. It would be easy to handle and I'd spend the extra cash to make sure it was sharp and usable wide open. The second lens would have a bit of overlap but it would be a world class, 100-600mm f2.8 lens, complete with remarkable performance all the way out to 600mm. 
With the system set up for two lenses we'd skip over the compromises necessary in the design of one, all encompassing, super-lens and spend the design dividend on aperture speed. 

I'd have two bodies so I could go on assignment with one lens on each, covering every thing one would normally require from a photographer. Inevitably, someone will make an impassioned plea for a wider angle lens but I'd be resolute in not providing it. Instead, we'd make a dedicated variant of the original body with the lens permanently fixed on the front in order to ensure perfect tolerances and great performance. 

The bodies would be more square, like the old Hasselblad V series cameras or the Rollei SL2000 designed decades ago. Rounded corners, of course. And, like the Rollei, shutter buttons on both sides. 

The bodies would have five or six physical controls for things like focus hold, shutter speed, f-stop, ISO, and file type but no programmable function controls to mess up the design and cause confusion. And it would only shoot uncompressed RAW files, but would offer them in a range of file sizes. 4 megs, 8 megs, 16 megs and 20 megs. You size em for how you need them. And, of course, we would only offer center point AF because, really, that's all you need and it's easier to make it work perfectly if you simplify. Trust me, you'll be happy to get rid of all those annoying focusing points...

Since everyone else is making a fetish out of tiny, shirt pocket cameras I'd want to offer bigger, beefier cameras that people can get their hands around. Cameras that use a battery at least as big as the ones in the Panasonic GH5. And, I'd market the size from the beginning as a radical advance for quality photography with no compromise. 

By separating the body from the lens we'd open up the ability to upgrade bodies as higher performance sensors hit the market. You wouldn't need to walk away from your investment in the two good lenses. But we'd make the lens mount so damn proprietary no one could ever bring a third party lens to market for them. This would keep hordes of cheap bastards from putting crappy, soft, horrible lenses on our bodies and then blaming "the system" for awful performance. 

If I wanted to extend the lens line away from the two, "do everything" lenses I'd introduce 35, 50 and 85mm equivalents that are each f1.0; sharp and usable at that setting. Much easier to pull off with the smaller sensor. 

The bodies and lenses would come only in a light grey color and would be coated in a material that rejects radiated heat. For hotter climates we might also offer a reflective silver coating with a 99% heat reflectance capability. Kinda shiny but practical for deserts and tropics. 

Of course the cameras would feature state of the art EVFs but the rear panel would be a plug in. You could use it as an articulating screen the same way you do with current screens but you could unplug it from the camera and use it on an extension cord so you could position it wherever you need it for the best imaging. 

The camera would have, as an option, a small device that could be tethered so image files could be written simultaneously to the external device and an internal memory card. The device could be separated from the camera and used to transmit selected images via cell or wi-fi data streams. The device would have a large screen and be autonomous from the camera. This would allow me to design the camera as a pure photo and video tool instead of an all purpose klodge of imaging and share-ability parts. No extra camera battery drain, useful concurrent operation and no way to electronically surveil your position via your camera. 

There would be a grommeted port on the camera that would allow you to open up the seal and install a mini fan for times when high resolution in demanding environments is mission critical. Fan cooling the sensor and processors to reduce heat noise and component stress. Pulling the fan out and resealing the camera for the times you don't need fault tolerant video. 

Both lenses would feature real focusing and zooming rings with hard stops for hyper-focal focusing work and video production. 

We trade high frame rate still photography for rock solid shutter reliability. If you need more than 8 fps for stills you probably really need a movie camera.

The camera would have a built-in variable neutral density filter. And you could order one set up for left hand hold and operation; a mirror image version of the right handed one. You know, for the 9% of us who are left handed. 

On second thought I'm pretty sure no one would really want this camera but me... oh well. At least Sony has made a good start on this... Hmmm. A Sony RX 10 professional series. Holding my breath in anticipation...

All images shot with Sony RX10iii. 


John Pascoe said...

While I like your proposal for different file sizes, I am curious to know why you prefer Uncompressed raw to Lossless Compressed raw. The reduction in file size would seem to me to be useful (even if not as much as Lossy Compressed raw offers) but with few operational disadvantages and none of the artifacts caused by Lossy Compressed raw. That is, Lossless Compressed raw seems to me to be the Goldilocks option many of us are looking for.
(You are not the only one I have seen prefer Uncompressed raw, just the one most likely to know why he does :-)
Keep up the good work,

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi John, I have the idea that it would be good to go back to the kind of practice we did in the days of film. There wasn't a series of levels of quality we used when developing our black and white film (this is personal, non-commercial use of film = art). We wanted the negatives to be just as good as could be even if our end intention was to degrade them somewhere else in the process. In the Sony line of cameras I think there is a difference of in terms of color sampling versus luminance sampling in the two types of raw files. In video we talk of file sampling in terms of 4:2:0 and 4:2:2, or even 4:4:4. We are more sensitive to luminance differences and to save space we cut or compress the things that are less obvious to our visual reading. In the case of video we need to sample luminance more accurately than color or color spacing. In stills the differences in compression between compressed and uncompressed are probably only discernible in situations where compression can create issues. Like adding contrast or saturation to blue sky areas can cause banding. Or pulling down overall exposure on a portrait can cause a similar compression of tones which also shifts their color. On one of my older Nikons if I tried to open up shadows they would become progressively redder and the gradation would become coarser and coarser as I tried to make them lighter. I'm sure it was a result of not having enough color information in the shadows. Starting with the cleanest canvas always makes the best painting. Also, some cameras switch from 14 bit to 12 bit color (or 11 bit) as they are more compressed and also some, like the Sonys switch from 14 bit to 11 bit when changing from AFS to AFC. We don't always know what the final commercial use of an image will be around here so we try to aim for "best" unless the image is used for event documentation and then we change gears to save space and time, and shoot Jpegs. Or, at best, compressed raws.

Robert Lietz said...

Hi Kirk,

As I read your wish list for the new camera and the preferences "sprawled a bit" toward the conclusion, I couldn't help but wonder if you were familiar with Chuck Berry's specs for the Caddy he imagined purchasing in "No Money Down." If you know it, I hope it seems a suitable partner for your own "design work" here. There are lyrics and videos on line if you're not familiar with it, or if you haven't seen Chuck or perhaps John Hammond performing the song.

Pretty cool stuff...


Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Dang it all. I forgot the cup holders and the curb feelers....

David said...

Kirk, I was with you up until the fan cooling. Sounds good, but noise and vibrations I see as big problems. Maybe a liquid cooler that pumps fluid to cool it down, like an over clocked cpu would be much better.

Mark the tog said...

The feature I love best in my FZ1000 is the leaf shutter.
Quiet, full sync flash that makes my small flashes kick Profoto butt all day long.

LS in an interchangeable lens is do-able but will place limitations on your aspirations for speed.

Michael Meissner said...

Lets see, a few things I would add:

1) The EVF must either be OLED or the screen internally is rotated so that when you use the camera in landscape orientation, you can clearly see the EVF while wearing polarizing sunglasses. As somebody who has to wear wrap around polarized sunglasses most of the time when I'm out in bright sun to cut down on glare and reduce the frequency of migraines, it is really annoying that some viewfinders (Olympus E-m1/E-m5/Stylus-1 in particular) have blind spots where I can't see when shooting normally (i.e. landscape orientation).

2) I presume these cameras/lenses would be splash/dust/mud-proof to at least the Olympus E-m1 level. They don't have to be dive cameras like the Tough series, but rain does happen. They should be easily cleaned when they are used near salt water.

3) I like the idea of the back display being removable. I presume there would be two separate mounts on the camera that are interchangeable, for those people that like tilt displays and those that like fully articulated displays. Now that I have a Panasonic G85 (articulated) and E-m1 mark I (tilt), I find at times the choice of camera is due to which type of display to use. I would prefer a wired connection over wireless, since I've found there are places where the phone controls are limited or hard to use. This display must have a touch screen, and has access to all of the camera controls. Since the display is connected via a wire, it uses the camera batteries. I tend to prefer having one centralized power distribution setup, over having several different devices, each of which needs their own battery. This display probably should be OLED or similar due to the polarization issue, or have two different displays, one OLED and the other TFT with faster refresh rate and better color control.

4) In addition to a removable display, I would like to see as an option, a remote control pan/tilt head that plugs into the camera, and the remote display can operate. Like the removable screen, it should use a common power system. The idea is you have one one control that can control both the camera and pan/tilt. I don't currently have a pan/tilt head, but I've been looking into them. I dislike having to have two sets of controls (camera and pan/tilt). It would be nice if the lenses could offer options for electronic zoom and focus, so that you could control these from the remote panel as well.

5) For those that record events (lectures, presumably weddings, etc.) it should be able to record video more than 29 minutes 59 seconds world wide. Yeah, with editing you would typically want to reduce this down to a more viewable size, but live events don't always fit into bite sized chunks, and Murphy's law says the best bit will occur when you are ending one segment and beginning the next.

6) I could imagine some cases where it would be useful to either chain batteries together and/or use A/C so that the camera could operate for hours without having to change batteries. For the case of chaining batteries, you should be able to replace the big battery while the camera is powered by the smaller battery without turning off the camera. The camera and/or each battery should have indicators of the charge level. When I'm using a grip on my E-m5 mark I or E-m1 mark I, I wished the camera would tell me the charge level of each battery (so that I could change the grip battery when it is exhausted without undoing the rig to change the body battery). For the larger batteries, it would be useful if the battery included charging capability directly in the battery, so you could plug in a 5v USB plug at the end of the day, and not need a separate charger.

7) Of course if the camera is designed to be operating for awhile, it should be properly vented so that it doesn't overheat. I imagine in places like Austin, you might need to think of more active cooling than just venting the heat.

(note I ran into the 4,096 limit)

Michael Meissner said...

(follow up of my previous post due to 4,096 character limit)

8) I find at times I want a smaller camera that fits in a jacket pocket, while at times, I want a bigger rig with larger lens, bigger battery, etc. So it would be nice if there were two cameras, one smaller with a fixed lens but the same basic controls, and the bigger one with all of the options.

9) While having a wifi interface is pretty much required these days, it would be useful if somebody could redesign the interface so that you can have one display control multiple cameras (and maybe the reverse as well, multiple displays controlling one camera). It would be nice if the cameras could be really remote and operate through routers, etc. Right now, the two systems I've used (Olympus and Panasonic), the camera creates its own wifi interface, and the phone/tablet connects to it as a client. This means the phone/tablet must be disconnected from the normal wifi, and can only deal with one camera.

10) This mythical camera should have strap lugs as part of the camera body, and not little triangles connected to a little loop that can break or can be slightly painful depending on how you grip the camera. The Olympus E-620 (and a few other Olympus E-xxx cameras) had a little slot you could feed in the strap.

11) It should have two or three tripod sockets, one on the bottom (and centered properly), and at least one on the side. Yeah, L-brackets would typically be used, but at times it is useful to be able to mount the camera in portrait orientation directly. These tripod sockets should be firmly mounted on the camera, and not using tiny little non-standard screws like Olympus did until the Pen-F/E-m1 mark II came out (I've lost several of these tiny screws in different Olympus bodies over the years -- and it doesn't give my much confidence when I realize several pounds/kg of expensive camera is held up by these screws).

Gato said...

My specs would start with a square sensor, probably around 13mm or just a little larger (similar to the long side of a 1-inch sensor or the short side of 4/3). It would be switchable for common image proportions with a provision for custom user programmed proportions, and of course switchable for vertical and horizontal. (Yes, it would offer square proportions.)

Pixel density would allow around 20 to 24 MP in the common proportion settings.

It would use the m4/3 mount standard or possible Sony E mount. Maybe even offer buyers a choice of either mount. If practical and legally feasible I would offer fully functional adapters for Canon and Nikon lenses, not because I think it's a good idea to use them but because it would appeal to some buyers.

It would offer excellent face and eye detect focusing with very flexible control of focus point.

It would offer top quality video with, of course, mic and headphone connections.

It would be compatible with a common existing automatic flash system offering TTL, HSS and of course radio wireless control.

It would have an electronic shutter, ideally a global shutter with flash sync at high speeds.

There would be a fully developed wifi imprementation, including remote and tethered operation. It would offer real-time image sharing, not just for social media but also for clients who are not on set.

OK, I could probably think of more, but that's much longer than I planned to write. So I'll stop now.

CadenceMichael said...

While this post is about physical cameras, my favorite part is the picture at the top of the post. I love it.

Ken said...

I like some of your ideas. However, it sounds like you just designed the perfect "old Kirk Tuck" camera, seasoned with the rationalizations, biases and camera flavor of the month. Maybe the best part of this is that it would be the final nail in the coffin off Nikon. :)

Michael Meissner said...

Some more minor thoughts:

12) All batteries should be removable. It would be nice if the camera USB connection could charge the battery in camera (particularly if it isn't in use), but not required. I tend to use camcorders for the few times I need a video record, and I bought a JVC R10 camera to act as second to my JVC GZ-EX210 camera, and it is nice in that it is weather sealed. But the internal battery only lasts 2 hours, which makes it less than useful when rain is forecast for the day, and you need to record shows from an outdoor day long event. So I found myself, using the GZ-EX210 mostly, but switch out to the R10 if the clouds were coming in, and when I switch back, attach a USB charger to the R10.

13) With the E-m1 mark II and TG-5, it seems even Olympus has finally seen the light about using standard cables. But just in case, in the fantasy camera, all cables should be standard (full sized hdmi for instance).

14) It would be nice if multiple accessories (flashes, removable lcd, pan/tilt head, etc.) could all be connected at the same time and each accessory had an output port as well as input port to allow multiple accessories to be connected. Again a standard cable should be used (HDMI, USB, ethernet, etc.). Obviously things like flash hot-shoe and microphone ports that already have a standard cable should be used, but it would be nice if there was a provision to add more devices. It would be even nicer, if the API was documented and people could add new devices, but that may be too much fantasy.