After many years I think I’ve learnt a few useful things. 1. Camera bodies become obsolete. 1a. Digital camera bodies become obsolete very quickly. 2. Lenses are often usable on many more camera bodies than vice versa. 3. An old joke: How do you make a million dollars in photography? Start with two million.
Trey Ratcliff on his blog, posted via Google+, and replied to by David La Spina on his blog both feel that the future of camera bodies in photography is not in SLRs. I argue that the “future of cameras” is not the discussion to be having, but a very different one.
Firstly, what cameras are there? Trey uses the term ‘3rd Generation’, which he essentially means mirrorless like the Leica cameras (old and new). Of the mirrorless camp, there’s the Sony Nex series, the Nikon J1 and V1, the Olympus Pen (old and new), the Canon G series, Leica’s (film and digital), the Fujifilm x series et al. These are very good cameras, and the quality of images they are capable of almost parallels current high-end cameras, and these mirrorless cameras can produce images that exceed what the first professional digital SLR cameras could produce, including (in order of appearance) in 1987 Minolta SB70s, in 1995 Minolta RD175, in 1999 Nikon D1, and Canon (whatever they had). There’s also mobile phones, which will be briefly discussed below. Of the high-end camp, currently there’s the very new Nikon D4, very new (not yet released) Canon 5d MkIII, and there’s the current Sony A900, rumoured replacement Sony A99 (rumoured to be announced later this year), and Sony A77 cameras. To you, perhaps strangely, there’s more: there’s still film also to discuss below. There’s my favourite Minoltas, as well as Leicas, Rolleiflexs, (cringe) Lomo, and more.
However, there are some points that both Trey and David are missing out on. Whilst this week Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection in the US, Ilford (now owned by Harman Technology) and Fujifilm are still financially viable. Why is this? There are still some professionals that still use film for aesthetic reasons, and practicality (there currently are no large format digital sensors commercially available for landscape and architectural photographers), as well as hobbyists. Interestingly, Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, and Leica film cameras still sell quite well and still fetch a good price on eBay. Ok, so there is a niche market for film. That is to say, film and film cameras hasn’t gone away, and isn’t going away (yet).
So, could the traditional SLR format and camera shape disappear? It could (or will eventually). Take for instance the TLR format camera which is no longer being made (that I’m aware of), and despite its former ubiquity. So, the digital SLR will of course disappear, but only eventually, but does that make put them on an endangered species list today? I don’t believe so.
When the Sony Nex system was released I hated the idea for several reasons. Firstly, it didn’t use a lens mount system that was available at the time, but the new E-mount. For alpha-mount users (Minolta & Sony auto focus mount), like myself, this could be seen as a death-knell. The brief history is that Minolta created the MA mount system, which was eventually replaced by the MC mount, a few years later that was replaced by the MD mount (I have this still), and a few years later the first auto focus system and a new mount for it: the Minolta Auto-focus mount (later, on Sony take over, known as the “Alpha-mount”). All of this updating meant having to replace lens systems. A photographer a generation or two before me would have bought a 50mm lens four times. As for me, I still have a 50mm f1.8 on the MD, then a 50mm f1.4 on the Alpha-mount (Minolta then Sony), and now I face the prospect of having to move to the E-mount. All this re-buying means less money for me, and more money for the camera companies; and of course I have a range of lenses that would need replacing.
Secondly, the ergonomic format of the mirrorless cameras (like the Sony Nex) to the film & digital SLR cameras (like the Minolta 7, Sony A900, Nikon D4, Canon 5d.MkII) are quite different. The modern SLR cameras have shutter speed, aperture and iso controls placed so they are very easy and quick to adjust (except apparently the iso & white balance settings on the Canon SLRs), so the user does not need to take their eyes off of the subject to make adjustments. This means that serious photographers (professional, semi-pro, or amateur) can quickly adjust settings to more accurately control exposure as required in even difficult changeable lighting situations. Often, I find that I am not happy with the Shutter or Aperture priority settings the cameras suggest, so I most often use Manual, and thus require the ability to make quick adjustments. The problem with the mirrorless and point-and-shoot cameras is that to adjust these same settings, you would need to take your eyes away from the subject to see what adjustments you are making, often having to rummage through the menu system of these cameras. The Sony Nex 7 has separate control dials for this, but currently this is more the exception. Further, the Nex 7 has the two dials side by side, rather than for easier thumb and finger control, and these dials are smooth, so use with gloves is not possible. Also, Japanese manufacturers are designing products that suit their own local customers rather than international customers. Often the mirrorless cameras are quite small, and the buttons can be difficult for people with large hands and fingers. There had been many complaints by non-Japanese users about the Sony A200 to 500 range on this ergonomic issue.
These ergonomic problems are not unfixable. It won’t take much to redesign a mirrorless camera to be ergonomically better (the Fujifilm x1 Pro looks quite usable, so too the Leica M9), additionally the menu system can be made more user-friendly. So then, could the high-end digital SLR bodies become mirrorless? My guess is that Sony will be the first to do this (they already have pellicle cameras like the A77). If so, then it’s a matter of time that the Alpha-mount becomes properly irrelevant, and the new E-mount the standard. Of Nikon and Canon? We still haven’t seen what serious contenders they can put up against Fujifilm, Sony Nex, and Leica. We don’t know if mirrorless is a niche that Nikon and Canon wish to aggressively pursue (at least yet). And let’s face it, the Nikon J1 and V1 are embarrassing. Shops here in Japan target these Nikon J1 and V1 cameras to 20-something year old girls who have a bit of disposable income and love to blog about the food they eat in restaurants near their offices.
Mobile phones & homogeneous aesthetics
Regarding mobile phones, it makes me cringe to consider mentioning these seriously. Realistically, for a mobile phone to match the quality of mirrorless and SLR cameras, the phone ought to be supplanted with a camera with phone functions built in. That is, all the hardware (sensor, processor, and external controls) needs to be of suitable competitive quality, and the controls need to be easily available to the user. Ok, so a mobile phone can take a photo in a variety of light conditions, but the dynamic range of these cameras is quite poor. Being able to adjust (even quickly) the controls to focus on the right subject, control the exposure for the right aesthetic is still not easy for the camera’s on-board computer. Photographing a castle is different to creating a shallow-depth of focus portrait or macro shot. We humans know what we want to see in a photo, but a mobile phone computer can’t do that (yet). However, face-focusing and smile-recognition systems being integrated. Though, it needs to be said, these technologies are replacing human creativity, reducing chances of accidental exposures that turn out to be pleasing, and dispreferring deviant exposure settings, whilst homogenising photographic quality and aesthetics; have you tried to use the Nikon J1? What advantages are there in having a high-end camera when you can just use a cheaper, multi-functional mobile phone? Well for professional purposes there’s image quality. I’m yet to hear of a fashion photographer shoot for a magazine using his iPhone. I’m yet to hear of a mobile phone that has been connected to a studio light set up. I’m yet to hear of a mobile phone that can be mounted on a tripod to do slow-shutter speed photos of waves curling around rocks. If you really want an inexpensive camera that can do these things, go to film. Seriously, high-end, fully capable SLR film cameras can do all these things at a fraction of the price of a new full-frame digital camera. And if you consider cost of processing compared to the cost of updating digital cameras, film is still cheaper for many people. Also, if you consider aesthetic look, you can save a lot of time spending moments creating a whole batch of shots on a film camera that look like they’ve been taken on a film camera, rather than shooting digital and then spending ages manipulating them all to look like they’ve been taken on film! And still, a keen eye can recognise the difference between a shot taken on film, and one manipulated to look as such in PhotoShop. Of course, plugins for PhotoShop can speed up the adjustment process, but all your images will have a homogeneous fake-film look. The problem that I have with More Lomo, and PhotoShop Express on the iPhone, and iPhonography in general, is that the pictures lack dynamic range control, darks are too heavy, highlights are blown, colours are overly saturated and tonal bands appear in the sky, rather than having smooth transitions (even on the small images I see other people posting). I do use my iPhone camera function, but for social events and recording the covers of books I might consider buying later.
Consequently, to me, the future of cameras is not the issue, but the future of photographic aesthetics. For quality and variety, we need to retain the use of film, retain the ability to have accidents, make purposeful deviant exposure decisions, and we need to be able to change exposure settings on the fly. To me, a good photographer should have a repertoire to use, making full use of his photographic palate, using film (SLR, TLR, or mirrorless), small digital (like point-and-shoot or mirrorless), and purpose built SLRs (film and digital). We should be experimenting and using the right tool for the right job.