I had an epiphany of sorts this weekend. I took home the new Schneider 50mm f/2.8 Super Angulon. For those of you not in the loop, this is a 50mm tilt-shift SLR lens made by a company that is best known for it's Cinema lenses (along with filters, glass, and some other stuff). The point is the lens is totally different from anything I've ever shot with: you tilt and shift it by rotating rings like zoom rings and clear markings tell you exactly how far you've tilted or shifted. It's much more exact than any SLR tilt-shift. The lens is a dream to use and truly different than any other tilt-shift I've shot with.
It got me thinking. This is what I had hoped for when SLRs and Cinema started crossing over: The best of both worlds. I'm not saying the Schneider is the best tilt-shift made (it may be, I haven't shot enough to say that though). But it certainly is the best made tilt-shift housing I've ever seen. All I could think of while shooting it was "why didn't Canon or Nikon ever do this." And the answer is simple. Because big companies don't think out of the box like that. Too bad.
Then I started getting ready for Announcement Week next week, looking at the rumor sites, wondering what's going to be new and exciting. Maybe a Nikon mirrorless system - probably an improvement on other mirrorless systems in some ways. And maybe a D4. Maybe Canon replaces the 1D Mk IV, maybe not. Some new lenses perhaps. But I doubt we'll see anything as different as that Schneider lens. The amazingly different stuff comes from new entries. Like RED. Heck, even like Sony - I'm not a Sony fan that much, but at least they're trying some different things with their newer cameras.
<begin camera fantasy>
You're Going to Play the Apple Card, Aren't You Roger?
Yep. All of this started me thinking (have you noticed I think too much yet?) about what I would really want in a camera, just to shake things up and be different. And how could that actually happen? Well, really it won't happen. Small companies don't have the financial ability to take huge development-cost risks, nor to grab market share when they do. The Fuji X100, perhaps (Fuji isn't exactly tiny, but in comparison to the big boys). Zeiss has certainly done it with lenses to some degree. Panasonic and Sony with their AG-AF100 and F3 video cameras. But overall the camera world isn't a risk taking world.
But who could really do it? Apple could if they wanted. I was shocked to find Apple had so much money that they could buy Sony (not saying that would be anything other than a horrible idea, but they could if they wanted to). But Apple certainly could snap up a smaller camera maker or division (Olympus, Pentax, etc.) and a nice lens-making company (Zeiss, Leica, mayby Sigma. They're all private, but I bet for the right price . . . . ).
And it might be a nice fit. For you youngsters, Apple was one of the first digital camera marketers (I believe Kodak actually made the camera for them), with their Quick Take cameras released back in 1994. Nikon and Canon, for those of you not aware, didn't go true digital until some years later. And cameras sell computers and iPads and stuff like that.
Now before I get 8 million Apples versus Windows fanboy emails, let me say I get it: an Apple camera would be expensive, even elitist perhaps. But you have to admit that Apple makes stuff that works intuitively and is ergonomically superb. Not something that's often said about SLR cameras. Plus Apple already knows how to make successful electronic gizmos. And one other thing: There are 500 Apple Stores where you could go in an try it (not to mention an existing online store). A lot of medium size cities that don't have even one well stocked camera store have a busy Apple Store (I know, I live in one). So people could actually go in and lay hands on it before they bought it.
I realize it isn't going to happen. But in Roger's World, this is the camera that would be announced next week (today is my birthday, so I get a birthday wish).
Roger's Fantasy SLR
I know Apple isn't going to name their new camera after me but maybe they'd throw in an initial? So we'll call my design the Rapple Cam. It's the least they can do after I hand them the formula for a world beating SLR. (OK, they probably won't even give me an initial. We all know it will be named, after months of careful marketing research, the iCam. But hey, U2 got an iPod so maybe they'll color one bright red or something and call it the Roger iCam and preload it with all my blog posts? Or maybe all my great photos? That wouldn't take up much memory at all. OK, maybe not.)
A Camera-worthy Display
First, let's start with the back. Everyone usually complains about two ergonomic factors with SLRs: It either has too many buttons, or not enough buttons and weird, nonintuitive menus that nest down to 36 levels. (Being photographers, we often complain a camera has both too many and too few buttons.) Plus it's a sad, sad world when I download pictures from my camera to my cell phone so I can see them better. Or have to hook up an external monitor to be able to see well enough to live-view focus accurately or to pull focus for video. So the back of my camera will be all display. Maybe with a pop-up shade.
Ortustech's 4.8-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel HAST (Hyper Amorphous Silicon) LCD with 160-degree viewing angle, and 16.8 million colors would do nicely. So out of the box I can display high-definition video and photos right on the camera. (What a concept! Who would want to do that? Everyone, that's who.) Touch screen, of course, and no button to push to expand live-view for focusing, just finger-pinch to zoom in and zoom out. Tap to select focus point. Maybe double tap to bring up the screen menu. This is so self-evident I can't understand why it's not being done already.
There might be room to put a row of nicely recessed buttons on the back of the camera along the edges of the screen (because soft buttons aren't good when changing settings and looking through the viewfinder). But logically they could also be moved to the front of the camera, to the right of the lens mount where your grip fingers are located. None of us grip the camera by pushing down on that area, we grip by holding the grip. But they'd be right below your fingertips when needed.
So we have 4 commonly used buttons (maybe ISO, white balance, focus point selection, and
direct print mirror lock-up. Do you hear me Canon? Mirror-damn-lockup!!! Or you can direct print my . . . sorry, lost it there for a sec.) in the front location and 4 more on the back to one side of the viewfinder. Maybe make one set programmable buttons so each does exactly what you want. The Scroll wheel / directional button thingie would have to go, of course, it takes up too much space. But it would be easy to put in on the top right side of the camera. (I realize a scroll-wheel on the touch display won't work well, but I do love the mental picture of spinning it like roulette wheel and seeing what function I win.)
The Universal Lens Mount
Since I would be starting from scratch and want to get people to change to my brand, this one's easy too. I put in an interchangeable lens mount. Since I don't particularly want a mirrorless camera, I'd go with maybe a 40mm flange to sensor distance. Then I could add adapters for Canon (44mm), Sony alpha (44.5mm), Nikon (46.5mm) and even PL (52mm) lenses. Change your adapter, change your lens brand. So a person could try my new camera without having to change any of their current lenses.
And since, in my fantasy, we've already bought a third-party lens maker, they would already have reverse-engineered the focusing algorithms etc. (Or, because I have a zillion engineers and programmers on staff, I just let them do it while we're slapping the cameras together). I make each adapter properly route the electronic signals from the Rapple camera to the appropriate lens contacts so autofocus and electronic aperture control are functioning. If necessary, we could change camera firmware for each lens brand. In one fell swoop I've overcome the biggest hesitation to changing brands because now you can keep your existing lenses. And solved the biggest problem new camera brands (or mount types) have -- nice camera but the lens lineup stinks.
And now I could carry the Sony 135 f/1.8, the Nikon 14-24 f2.8, the Canon 24 TS-E and 100 Macro IS in my bag and shoot all of them on my camera. That, my friends, would be 3 steps past too cool.
A Few Added Features?
Well, if Apple is making it, I'm sure it would wirelessly connect to an iPad (and iPhone, and MacBook, etc.) to let you (or the director or the client) view the images in real time. Probably connect the other way and let you control the camera from said device too. "Tethering? We don' need no steenking tethering." And of course since they've got the technology in spades, Apple would slap on a very accurate GPS.
As long as we've got that wonderful LCD on the back let's go ahead and steal the focus peaking indicator from the video world and the Sony NEX cameras. With that feature and pinch-and-spread touch control on the viewfinder, I might not care too much (other than action shooting) if the lenses were autofocus or not. It wouldn't be difficult to add video-like false-color exposure zebras. In many ways they are far superior to a histogram.
Instead of the plethora of connectivity found on so many SLRs (some of them have 5 or 6 covered connectors on the body) how about just one electronic connecting station. Make it as proprietary as an iPad's if you want. But then sell different modules that can connect to the camera through it. One module could be as simple as a PC connection or a remote shutter release. Another might be a clamp-on video camera module (mounting to the camera like a grip) that gives HDMI, XLR and other inputs and outputs in a larger box suitable for mounting on rails.
It would have a pixel-binning option, of course, for when I'm willing to trade some resolution for clean high ISO. That may be difficult to accomplish on a Bayer sensor, but it isn't impossible either. And speaking of high ISO, this camera wouldn't apply noise reduction at high ISO without telling you (I see you blushing over there, Nikon) and would let you turn it off if you'd rather do it yourself. And perhaps a "sports shooter mode" (we may see this soon anyway) that lets you use just the central portion of the sensor (perhaps a 1.3 crop) at faster shutter speeds for action photography or if you accidently mount a crop-sensor lens (Mr. Nikon's grinning proudly now, Mr. Canon's blushing).
You want to know something eminently simple, though, that would be awesome? I hear from people all the time: "the camera's grip was too small for my hand, I felt like I would drop it" or "that camera's grip was so big I couldn't get my hand around it". That's easy: let's make an interchangeable hand-grip (the part where you hold every camera, not talking about a battery grip here). It should be cheap to include both a small and large grip with each camera that simply screw-mounts on where the hand-grip should go. It may sound stupid, but I know people who would love to shoot with a 1D Mk IV or a D3s but their hands are too smal to hold it comfortably. The same thing goes the other way: I'd love to travel with something small like a Canon T3i, but honestly I have to hold it with my fingertips and that gets old pretty quickly.
Of course, given I have Apple making this and it has that killer touch-screen display, it would seem a waste not to be able to put some Apps on my camera. That way I've got PhotoCalc, DoF Calc, and Toland's Digital Assistant (killer app, BTW, although probably not worth the cost) right there on my camera. And perhaps a game or two.
</ end camera fantasy>
Back to Reality
OK, I know and you know that none of this is going to happen. But I'm pretty comfortable that what I've suggested is actually doable (given many million dollars to invest) and would sell like gangbusters if its price point and quality was reasonable. I didn't put in anything (interchangeable sensors, full modular design, etc.) that I wasn't pretty certain could be done right now.
I probably left out some things, but I'm sure some of you will pretty quickly add comments to point out features that I forgot.
August 2011 (right before announcement week)