Magazine Article


Back to the Future

Is the Best Digicam Still Yet to Come Or Was It Already Here?

Don Sutherland

No one has been more enthusiastic about the astounding development of the digital SLR than yours truly. We lead "another life" as a working photojournalist, a diversion we've practiced since the mid-1970s. We feel qualified to report that the DSLR changes the very basis of taking pictures—how one thinks about the process, and how one proceeds. The cameras are enormously liberating in what they provide. This being our real-world experience, our delight, our joy, our song of praise for the camera manufacturing industry, our topic of extended reportage, our dream come true, our source of pictures that couldn't have been made any other way—because we're so goshdarn enthusiastic, people are sometimes surprised by the big drawback of it all, as we see it. The DSLR may be high-tech, but it's positively old-fashioned.

It's got all-new innards, but they're stuffed in a body that's a half-century old or older. The first really popular expression of this design was the Nikon F around 1959, though the principles were offered in such mid-1930s forms as the Exacta, or, if we're pushing the point, in the Graflex SLR of the 1890s.

A lot of things have gone on since then. Henry Ford built his first car, for example. Two world wars, TV, and the A-bomb have come along since, and men have walked on the moon; the horse and the typewriter and the steamboat have vanished from daily life, and we all use a global emporium and encyclopedia where we can find anything at the click of a mouse. That last one was a "Star Trek" theme a whole decade after the first Nikon F.

So much has changed, but one thing's stayed the same: the SLR layout. There's still a direct, straight-line path of light through the lens of a camera, into the body and onto the image plane of all DSLRs. This principle of design goes back even further than the Nikon F, the Exacta, or the Graflex. It was present in the very first camera by Daguerre himself, all the way back in 1839. It was present in the original camera obscura, which had an image plane even if not a recording substance, and was widely employed by European painters back during the Renaissance.

What's a 500-year-old principle of optical design doing in the best cameras the 21st century has yet devised? What's it doing in all the serious cameras, when a viable alternative, a better one, already appears in cameras that are just kidding around?

The History of the Futurecam

The Camera of the Future arrived so long ago that, in relative terms, it seems almost prehistoric. The year was 1996, and it came from a company not particularly famous for cameras. Casio was much better known for its calculating widgets. Casio evidently felt free to ignore certain traditions, and overhaul camera design.

Their first expression in the digicam field, in this country at least, was the QV-10. It had a remarkable feature—a lens in a pivoting mount. Compared to where the viewfinder was looking, the lens could look up, down, or behind at will. What a great idea! You could aim the camera in any odd direction—way over your head, way down by your feet, way behind your back—and take pictures as good as the QV-10 could deliver.

Since the data for the image are carried by camera circuits from the image-forming assembly (lens and CCD) through the processing assembly (circuit board) to the storage assembly (RAM chips or card reader), it doesn't matter if there's a straight line from start to finish as a film camera requires. It can be a crooked line, diagonal, curved, circular, or zigzagged. Do wires care which way they twist?

A corresponding idea appeared in the Ricoh RDC-1, whose viewfinder screen could be varied relative to the camera. It was a different approach, but it produced a similar result—you could face one direction and the camera could face another and you could still frame-up a picture. The Minolta Dimage V took it a step further—the lens could be removed from its pivoting mount, attached to a cable, and positioned as far as one meter away. Just what we needed for taking pictures of those hard-to-reach spots.

The air in that watershed year of 1996 was crackling with technological innovation. The Ricoh RDC-1 was not just a camera, but a multimedia data transmission device with its own modem. The first Nikon Coolpix came with a PCMCIA-card bottom, so you could stick it directly into your laptop's card reader. The second Nikon Coolpix provided a stylus and touchscreen so you could write words and graphic annotations on the picture. Technologies met technologies in orgiastic lust, and coupled with one another in every way they could imagine. It was a stimulating time.

Of them all, the one with the broadest appeal was technically the simplest: the pivoting lens. It became a hallmark of the Coolpix line from 1998 onward, continued through a succession of greatly improved Casio models, appeared in certain intermediate Ricoh models, and in the top-of-the-line Afga products of the late 1990s, and Sony continues their impressive line of cameras with articulated bodies. The corollary, the hinged LCD monitor pioneered in the RDC-1 (undoubtedly inspired by earlier camcorder monitors) was extended to other high-end Ricoh models (including one that revisited the modem feature in 2000), spread to Canon's first "serious" digicam (they called it "Pro"), the PowerShot 70, thence to an abundance of Nikon, Olympus, and Konica Minolta models that are selling today.

Konica Minolta's Anti-Shake system compensates for camera shake by moving the image sensor upward, as indicated by the green arrow.

So ingrained had the articulated lens or monitor-screen principle become that a reviewer on CNET, apparently someone much younger than yours truly, complained a couple years ago that the latest high-end Nikon Coolpix used that "old-fashioned" swiveling lens instead of the more contemporary unibody construction.

The Past Meets the Future

As wonderful as they were as tech demonstrations, many of these features did fade away. The telephonics of the Ricohs were stymied by the lack of standards in cell phone systems, for example, more of a problem in the U.S. than in Japan. But more than that, focus groups and market surveys and the thinking caps of analysts reported a discomfort with so much technical novelty in a snapshooting camera.

Evidently, the market wants its cutting-edge in thin slices. A camera today may do things unimagined ten years ago, but it should still look like a camera. Or if not a camera, it should look like something else familiar. The ideas behind the RDC-1 revisit us as the camera-phone. In this case, cameras are produced not by makers of calculating widgets, but of telecommunications widgets.

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