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The Perfect Camera for the 80% Case

Following up on What Happened to Pro DSLRs?, and thinking about the image quality from the Sigma DP Merrill and/or the Sony RX1R and Nikon D800E, and the usability of the Ricoh GR, I pondered what the ideal camera might be like, the “idea” camera? And it’s not a DSLR.

In fact, I think the DSLR is done-for in the mainstream sense. It just isn’t needed for the majority of shooting, assuming certain alternatives emerge (like a line of focal lengths Sony RX1R style).

Thinking about my recent trips and what really works in the field, I’ve concluded that most of the time, I actively do NOT want to shoot a heavy and bulky DSLR. Most of the time that is: the DSLR is in reality now a specialty tool, with little or no inherent image quality advantage over the Sony RX1R style alternative (the D800E still has a slight edge for the present, but that is a temporary situation).

While I don’t want a DSLR for most uses, I also don’t want a camera compromised in usability or one without a grip or without a superb viewfinder. And I still want a DSLR for some uses, especially with certain high grade lenses that are coming. Well I know a lot about that, but my readers will have to wait, but not too long.

Interchangeable lenses are a red herring; they are more of a hassle than a need, overrated as a requirement (so Sony NEX and Fuji X and Olympus E-M1 all end up being larger and more compromised than cameras like the Sony RX1R). In field use, I find that two compact cameras with complementary focal lengths are an efficient way to go. How many lenses do you want to carry and swap? I hardly ever find I need more than two focal lengths to cover what I want to cover. The rest of the time I just carry around a lot of lens weight. It actually ends up diluting my visualization process. Better to learn a couple of focal lengths (three max) really well.

What I want for lenses is super high grade lenses matched to the sensor. Like the Zeiss 35mm f/2 Sonnar on the Sony RX1R, only even better. Which means better than Leica M quality, not just equally good. Which is not that hard *if* matched to a sensor *and* companies don’t insist on cutting corners to make the lens small or cheap. And f/2.8 is OK if that is what is needed for perfect image quality. Wide open, f/2.8 is just fine if the lens is already at peak performance.

So here’s my ideal camera for the 80% or maybe even 90% case, the idea being that it solves just about every photographic concern I have out in the field. It does not need to solve sports or wildlife or specialty stuff, and that’s the point.

  • A Sigma-DP-style line of fixed lens cameras, with focal lengths like 21mm, 28mm, 40mm, 75mm. That’s enough for most purposes (a DSLR can be an adjunct). The line of focal lengths means sharing batteries and charger and redundancy/backup.
  • A superb EVF as with the Sony RX1R, but something around 4 megapixels and built-in, not a wart on top. With Retina-grade (iPhone) 3.5" rear display.
  • Very fast and precise and accurate autofocus as with the Sony RX1R.
  • A high quality grip built-in as with the Ricoh GR.
  • Full-frame sensor. Or possibly larger, like 36 X 36 square or 42 X 28.
  • A next-generation true-color sensor (true RGB sampling at every pixel) of around 32 megapixels, or a conventional sensor of around 56 megapixels. Or more, and with oversampling. Without an anti-aliasing filter. Why not? The pixel density of the Sony RX100 is around 148 megapixels.
  • Dynamic range of 15 bits, true medium format quality (but the lenses have to be good enough to deliver 15 bit contrast!). Or simply 14-bits of true usable dynamic range via ultra-clean dark tones.
  • Built-in flash with leaf shutter in lens syncing at up to 1/4000 second.
  • Built-in long exposures with no artificial limit on duration.
  • Olympus style 5-axis sensor image stabilization.
  • True Raw histogram and automatic ETTR exposure mode (does not exist in any color camera today).

None of this is pushing the current technology envelope all that far. So why not?

UPDATE: interesting, mail is running strongly in favor of this concept. Well, that does not surprise me much, having firsthand experience in the field with the idea; I don’t need a stroke of genius to realize what an antiquated PITA a DSLR can be. The sea change does not bode well for Nikon and Canon. Sony can run while those N/C clowns are scratching their privates and sniffing. They deserve to lose half of their market share (at least) given their pathetic lack of innovation.

Meanwhile, Ricoh has the best usability on the market but restricts itself to APS-C cameras with the same resolution as everyone else and no EVF, Sigma sits on its hands with a fabulous sensor but avoids an EVF and larger sensor size and Olympus pipes up with a pro-grade camera with a “honey I shrink the sensor” sensor. Don’t those companies want a lot more market share? Put it all together in one package and fix it!

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