Back To Basics
After a long hiatus, I decided to dive in and see where the digital camera market stood these days. It seems like ages since I have paid any mind to new digital cameras because I found my 5D to be more than enough camera for my needs and with the addition of a lens mount to share with my OM-2n I didn’t even really feel the need to keep up with any new lens rumors.
With the news of the latest offering from Olympus, the OM-D, I decided it was time to catch up. What I found was a strange landscape of camera manufactures wandering in the dark. Some are trying to create cameras more advanced and as feature packed as they can manage to appease the new generation of resolution junkies and the sudden market for video focused DSLR’s. More interesting though, to me at least, are those looking to the past for inspiration. I don’t feel the physical aesthetic matching older cameras is really relevant to anyone other than as a marketing gimmick. The interesting part of this new wave of cameras that started with the micro four thirds revolution, is in the way these cameras are operated.
Along with the amplified focus on the technical advancements within digital photography came those of us, like myself, who felt alienated by it to a certain extent. Photography started to feel like a sport for geeks and a new breed of digital purists looking for their cameras to reach a sort of imaginary perfection as if it really makes any difference.
When I think about photography, I am not a purist of any one camp. I love shooting digitally and I love shooting with film. The one stipulation I do have as far as purity goes is that I love to work within the basic fundamentals of the craft. Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO, these are the building blocks that we use to create. I find modern post production techniques such as HDR and other heavy digital reliance interesting but not at as relevant or essential to the act of capturing a great photograph. Are you a digital artist using data collected from the light around you or can you form a connection to your subject without such heavy reliance on technology to portray a feeling? Photography is so grounded in truth that it seems backwards to let technology distort it so heavily. This does not mean that I am afraid to evolve or lack respect for those using modern tools to create, I use them at times just like everyone else. It’s just that I find the purity of capturing light can be reduced to a few basics.
A popular viewpoint is the “best camera is the one you have with you” movement wherein the camera itself is all but irrelevant as long as you capture the moment. I love the minimalism of the idea but I often see inconsistencies among those trying to define it. One of the holes in that mindset is that while of course you can take nice photos with any camera you do heavily limit yourself without having at least the basic fundamental controls in place to give you the power to fully exploit the beauty of any given moment. The thing I do agree with in this movement is that modern cameras are often unnecessarily complex and bloated. There is no good reason for that camera that you have with you not being a capable one.
No, it doesn’t take a large $3,000 camera to create wonderful photographs, but quick and easy access to your exposure settings paired with a robust lens can greatly improve your ability to explore creatively. This is part of the reason I enjoy shooting with old film cameras as much as I do. It simplifies the experience. Currently most of the best choices you have for a small yet robust digital camera are limited and often bloated with features that stumble over each other as you try to capture what you envision in your mind.
If camera companies would like to go after the traditional shooters market or those still using film cameras for their simplicity and grace then why not go a little further? The new Fujifilm X-Pro 1 been met with open arms by photography enthusiasts for its stripped down approach and for good reason. It is not pretending to be anything it is not. There is no real focus on its video capability because its not a still camera pretending to be a video camera or vice versa. They made a focused effort to create a camera for photographers, not for gear heads and I love that. Olympus had a really interesting opportunity in bringing back the OM line but I think they missed the mark when they made yet another modern digital shooter that’s cool and all but feels a bit underwhelming.
Once I considered the way things are heading in the digital camera market it hit me that I would love to see someone take it one step further and make a camera which functions identically to traditional film shooters with fully manual exposure and focus controls paired with one bold statement, leave off the rear LCD preview screen. They could also innovate in the lens mount department and create one which could offer support for a number of different mounts. Offer a few basic settings to cater to the needs of digital shooting such as ISO, white balance, and compression type using a much more basic readout. I think something like this coupled with the further development in helping digital sensors mimic the warmth and noise handling of film and we may be on to something.
The lack of a back LCD would obviously make the biggest statement and would make big waves in the photo world. Users would come out of the woodwork to hate on the idea or pass along their praise but I feel it would be a fascinating move. It could potentially make for a cheaper entry point cost wise, free up space to keep things slim and durable, and improve battery life. With the added compatibility to perhaps support a number of lens mounts things could get even more interesting.
I could see this working with either a rangefinder style viewfinder or within a compact SLR. The original OM series was remarkably small considering it was a full featured SLR and part of my confusion with the new OM-D was its lack of a mirror. With the digital viewfinder it seems like they chose progress just for the sake of progress rather than something all that necessary to make a great body. In all fairness, however, I have not given myself enough time to consider the reasoning behind their decisions with that camera. On the other side of the fence, I think Fujifilm did a really wonderful job with the idea of combining a traditional optical viewfinder with digital capabilities on their recent rangefinder inspired cameras.
Of course I am over simplifying the idea and there are many factors to consider in building a camera like the simplified one I described above but the concept of an even more stripped down digital still camera is something I could see being a popular choice among a lot of photographers today. Funny, I could imagine the conversations now if it were to enter the market. “Thats a digital camera? Then where do I see my photos? How would I ever get my exposure right? Does it shoot video? How fast is the auto focus speed? What? You can only focus manually? Where’s the flash?”
There is actually a camera already available with nearly identical specifications as the one I mentioned above but many seem to have forgotten about within the short history of digital cameras. It has fully mechanical controls, and uses the Leica M mount with mechanical focus coupling. The sad thing is that it was discontinued in 2007. The camera is the Epson/Cosina R-D1. It always amazed me how long it managed stayed popular for many shooters during that time and has become something among a cult classic among some photographers. I think the R-D1 was a bit ahead of its time. It was released during the same period that most other camera manufacturers were scrambling to reach for higher image resolutions.
I remember reading debates in magazines over whether or not they would ever match the flexibility and resolution of film. The early days of DSLR’s were not much more than a battle for the highest megapixel claim and was a fight for the pro commercial market more than anything. A humble camera such as the R-D1 which merged ideas from the film world with new digital imaging technologies didn’t stand a chance at the time. The same thing happened with vinyl being declared dead due to the pressures of digital music progress yet today it has seen a healthy resurgence among music lovers.
Then of course there are those already dropping $7,000 on Leica M9’s to get a solid, capable yet simplified digital shooter. I was also just reminded of a concept I saw a while back for a digital Holga which had highly simplified controls and lacked a screen which drew a lot of praise for its minimalism yet, like many such design concepts, never managed to see the light of day. Surely I’m not the only one who feels it’s clear that there could be healthy market for a moderately priced minimal still camera. I think it would be amazing to see Voigtlander pick up the torch again now that there is a real demand for a camera such as the R-D1. With an updated sensor inside it would be a wonderful addition to the digital landscape. As it stands today I feel the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 is as close as we can get.
At any rate, I was already met with a heavily mixed reaction after mentioning it via twitter and I think I have vented enough of my thoughts on the matter here. I realize many of the plusses and minuses of the idea but I still feel it would offer something unique to the digital camera space and felt the idea was worth spreading. In the mean time, there are still enough film shooters and supporters out there to keep the millions of amazing film cameras still out there busy. Isn’t it telling that Kodak shut down all of their digital camera ventures while their film devision is still profitable and going strong. Pretty sure I read there was actually a 20 percent increase in sales last year. I realize the company had trouble keeping up with other camera manufacturers which kind of makes sense to me because while they do have a varied history on the hardware side of things, film was always their bread and butter. I look forward to the next few years and seeing what direction the photography world heads in. Should be interesting to say the least.