The Camera I Want

Back in 1998, I was shooting black and white film and printing in the darkroom and generally talking trash about how crappy digital capture was at the time. I put the digital takeover at least ten years out, although later I would update my estimate to only five years on the outside. For various reasons, I turned out to be wrong about that. Less than ten years later, digital capture has all but killed film not only in much of the mass market, but in almost all of the pro market as well. Which makes me wonder: with the digital camera marketplace so mature and dominant, why has no one made the digital camera that I really want?

Back in the good old days all cameras had a pretty standard shape that was compact without being too small, and hefty without being too heavy. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and especially Olympus all made small-body SLR cameras that were nice to use and not much bigger than the king of the elegant small camera: the Leica. The result was that normal people could carry a nice camera and a single focal length lens in the top pocket of a small bag or backpack without worrying about it too much.

By the 1990s, this type of camera had disappeared. It was replaced on the low end by plastic point and shoots and on the high end by 5 pound motorized semi- automatic cannon, able to shoot a whole roll of film in 10 seconds. The Leica became just a boutique museum piece, and aside from the occasional Nikon FM2, you didn’t really see small “serious” cameras anymore. To some extent this probably makes sense. The point and shoots work better for their intended audience, as does the 5 pound war machine.

The digital camera marketplace is a mirror of this world. On the low end, there are a myriad of point and shoot type cameras that come in sizes starting at the size of your pinky finger all the way up to the size of a real camera. They attempt to emulate the size and convenience of film point and shoots, but they mostly get it wrong. The little computer inside them makes it too easy to add stupid features and make the machine too complicated and therefore useless. They tend to have slow and error-prone autofocus because for some reason they use “passive” ccd-based systems rather than more reliable active systems. Finally, they are too slow from shot to shot.

On the high end are digital versions of the standard NikoCanon automatic pro SLR circa 1995. Big bodies, big lenses, and a big flash to go along with it.

What’s missing is the camera to sit between these extremes. Yes, Leica has finally made a digital M camera, and there is no doubt that it will be beautiful. But it will also cost as much as a small used car, and for that price you don’t even get a lens.

What I really want is a digital Konica Hexar. In the film world, this was a small camera that was fast to use, had a great viewfinder, good autofocus, and it was relatively inexpensive. On the surface, the Hexar doesn’t seem that different from the current crop of high end point and shoot digicams. But for me, the camera has to do four things that the digitals don’t.

1. I want the fantastic optical viewfinder. Shooting with a dinky LCD screen sucks. Electronic viewfinders suck. Most low end digital SLR viewfinders also suck. The Hexar viewfinder was big and bright, making it easy to frame your shot, even in the dark.

2. I want better focus. Either give me autofocus that works or let me focus myself in the fantastic viewfinder. The Hexar used infared beams to focus. It could hit focus in the dark with a high degree of reliability. I would be happy with this, or with an SLR-style focus system with a single high- performance sensor. But really, manual would be OK too.

3. I want digicam size but with a D-SLR imaging pipeline. There is no reason why, these days, the imaging pipeline in a camera the size of the Hexar can’t be as fast as a D50 or something.

4. I want a fast single focal length lens. Please please please give me a 352 or 501.4 equivalent lens. I don’t care if it’s glued there like on the Hexar. I don’t need to change lenses anyway, it just gets the camera dirty. Just don’t put another useless 35-600 f4-10.8 zoom lens that I don’t care about on this camera. I think nothing has done more to destroy the general state of causal photography than the point and shoot zoom lens.

Panasonic and Olympus have both come close to building me this camera. Sadly, they both just miss. The Olympus SLR bodies are too SLR-like. The Panasonics are shaped right, but have questionable handling and slow image processing. The Panasonic L1 claims to handle like a real camera, but has a teeny tiny viewfinder that isn’t even as good as the cheap viewfinders in the cheaper consumer DSLRs. Also, neither Panasonic or Olympus seem to think that making a high quality single focal semi-wide lens is worth their time.

The Epson/Cosina RD-1 is also a possibility, but it also has questionable handling. Needing to wind the shutter by hand is a nice retro touch, but for what this camera costs they could have put in a motor to do this for me.

So, as crazy as it seems, in the entire modern marketplace, the only camera I’ve found that comes close to this specification is the new Leica M8. I guess one way to look at it is, the camera is only 1/20th the cost of a Porshe 911. That’s not too bad.