Anyone who talks about the coming of “the first true DSLR” and “the first 21st-century camera” could probably be accused of enthusiasm, and in our case would be guilty. Guilty with respect to the idea, at least, of a digital camera with an optical SLR through-the-lens viewfinder as well as fulltime, full-motion through-the-lens electronic display. In concept alone, this would round-out the digital camera as the summation of the best of everything about camera design in the past century. Sure, that could be a big step, no matter who pulled it off.
Twice during 2005 we cited manufacturers, Canon and Fujifilm, which had DSLRs with live-view LCDs. But unlike the fixed-lens digital compacts, where “live” electronic viewfinders (EFVs) work fulltime, the feeds in these two DSLRs were more refined. Intended for special applications rather than general viewing, they delivered monochrome images at less than full-motion scanning, for a maximum of 30 sec. a pop. We applauded them for the right form of thinking, and expressed fond hopes that these steps would join the march of DSLR progress in a bigger way someday.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, camera designers were working to fulfill those hopes. Their efforts resulted in a new Olympus Evolt E-330. It looked so great on paper that we said all those enthusiastic things before actually handling the camera.
We received a test unit just before PMA, and used it steadily for a little over a month by presstime. It proved to be one of the most agreeable and versatile cameras of all time. It fulfills the things a true DSLR, a real 21st-century camera ought to.
Here’s Lookin’ At Ya
Optical SLR and electronic viewfinders both have some limitations and some strengths that the other does not. Optical SLR finders still give the more faithful rendition of color and shading of the scene, and make fast action easier to follow. But to use them, you must have them at your eye, which means the camera in your face.
The LCD on most modern cameras is quite spacious (the E-330’s is almost 2.5”), and has inspired the arms-length grasp which snapshooters worldwide have adopted. Besides being visible from a distance, the display on a suitably hinged or articulated mount can be turned in various directions. In the history of photography, that’s huge.
So huge, in fact, that it existed before. Twin-lens reflex cameras (TLRs), most famously embodied in the Rollei line, automatically gave a waist-level view of most subjects, as opposed to the eye-level more widely produced with 35mm cameras during the latter twentieth century. And depending on how tall you are, in combination with how tall your subjects are, that made a big difference. Unless you squat a lot, the eyelevel viewfinder gives you pictures of your six-year-old’s hair. With a waistlevel finder, it’s pictures of the kid’s face.
From Kodak’s Duraflex up to studio-grade Mamiyas, the TLR was quite popular for very good reasons. For newsmen, among others, it meant being able to hold the camera overhead, upside down, with the large viewfinder providing a high-angle view.
Quite a few photographers voiced a preference for composing on a screen they could view with two eyes, as opposed to peeking through the keyhole of eyelevel finders. If you thumb-through your McKeown’s, you’ll probably notice a lot of waist-level viewfinders going way back, sharing a basic construction—a mirror or prism held at a 45-degree angle or so, directing the image of the scene ahead to the eye above. It was probably the most common viewfinder type on bellows and box camera models for the consuming public, back to the 1890s. Even a few 35mm SLRs had interchangeable prism systems which included waist-level viewing, though the miniature picture size limited its friendliness. 35mm SLRs have been eye-level cameras mostly, and DSLRs have been exclusively.
The difference between a twin-lens reflex and a single-lens reflex is that in the SLR, the lens looking forward is the actual one taking the picture, and the mirror is directly behind it. The shutter is directly behind that, and the film (or eventually, digital imager) is behind that. So the mirror’s got to get out of the way quickly if the picture made by the lens is to strike something photosensitive.
The Electronic Difference
Quite a few parallels exist between the TLR of yore and the LCD-equipped camera of now, in terms of how a camera’s used. But there are big differences, too, based on the technology forming the viewfinder image. On one hand it’s optical, on the other, electronic.
Some EVFs have arrived with light-amplification systems (the Evolt E-330 included). In very low light they switch into a grayscale mode (or B&W, if you prefer), and boost the image brightness to a point arguably better than the naked eye can see. The real kicker is that this form of viewfinder dispenses with the rule that pictures must travel in straight lines. They do in optical viewfinders, but electronic ones consist of circuits. Like the cord on your desk lamp, they can be snaked around about anywhere. If you can change the position or angle of the viewing screen, you can view from not only directly above or below, but from off to the side as well. That opens new worlds to photographers.
It’s certainly a world videographers discovered a couple decades back. Pivoting LCD screens have been almost universal in home camcorders since the dawn of DV—that would be 11 years ago—and in high-end models way before that.
But for all its practical advantages, the EVF still turns a snapshot literally into a TV show. The colors and contrasts are those of an LCD, not the people and things in the picture. It may not be fatal, but it sure doesn’t help. And following rapid action, as in sports, is harder to do.