DSLRs: The end of the road?

In the days of film, the size of a camera was largely determined by the size of the medium it used. The larger the film, the larger the camera, and, generally speaking, the better the picture quality but the consumer is often willing to trade size for convenience. That’s not meant to be disparaging in any way, but there will always be those with unrealistic expectations. The diminutive 110 format cameras (do you remember those?) from the late 70‘s could never equal 135 (35mm) format for quality enlargements, but it was never really meant to.

Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, rangefinder cameras using 35mm film were being replaced by SLRs. While this convenience actually added to the size and weight, the advances in technology derived from the viewing through the taking lens, such as zoom lenses, improved accuracy in metering and the addition of auto-exposure and later auto-focus, were all to follow. The switch by Japanese camera manufacturers to the SLR moved a whole generation of photographers away from rangefinders.

Similarly the change from film to digital cameras by the press with the introduction of high-priced digital SLRs, ironically by Kodak, in the late 90’s signified the beginnings of a paradigm shift in photography that would eventually see the yellow giant sadly shrink unrecognisably in stature in a few short years.

Those early DSLRs were based on 35mm film bodies from Canon and Nikon adopting the photographers’ (and news-gathering agencies) not insignificant investment in existing lenses. But while the camera companies were supplying SLR components to Kodak, both Canon and Nikon quickly recognised the long-term importance of developing their own digital SLRs.

That they did with great success. Witness the popularity of Canon’s EOS 300D, the first digital SLR to break the sub £1000 barrier and later the Nikon D70. At the same time, Kodak withdrew from DSLR manufacturing, but remain today as a supplier of imaging sensors to high-end makers, such as the M8 digital rangefinder from Leica, and medium-format Hasselblads.

Like film, the quality of digital images relies heavily on the size and design of the sensor and its image-processing pipeline. But price is a determining factor in the size used for DSLRs. A sensor the same size as a single frame of 35mm film is, according to Canon, one of the main makers of cameras and sensors, as much as 20x more expensive to produce than the smaller APS-S sensor. And at least twice as dear as APS-H, the size used by Canon’s EOS 1D without the S press models.

There’s something comforting about the familiarity of using the 35mm lenses as they were originally intended and all the signs are that full-frame sensors, like APS-C before them, may well eventually find their way into consumer level cameras. This familiarity with baby-boomers, isn’t the most likely determining factor, though. We’ve recently seen DSLRs offer live previewing on the integrated LCD monitor, like a digital compact camera.

This is all very fine, but in turn this has led to Nikon, and now Canon, recording this live image as an optional video clip in addition to stills. Nikon’s latest APS-C D90 is the first DSLR to record HD video at 720p for up to 5-minutes at time, while the slightly slower to market Canon EOS 5D Mk II, a full-frame (35mm) model, achieves full HD 1080p.

With the prospect of interchangeable lenses, some with large apertures for selective focus techniques and exceptional low-light performance, these new hybrid SLRs are a fraction of the cost of dedicated professional equipment and video enthusiasts and independent film-makers are falling over themselves to take advantage.

Seeing Red

The founder of the Red One HD digital video camera, Jim Jannard, the gifted designer and entrepreneur originally behind Oakley sunglasses, is seeing a similar level of interest with the announcement of their Epic and Scarlet cameras. Although originally intended for professional video capture, these compact modular cameras boast stills capability and compatibility with professional cinematography lenses as well as Nikon and Canon still lenses.

Jim Jannard’s client list for the Red One includes Hollywood luminaries such as Doug Liman, the Director of The Bourne Identity, Mr & Mrs Smith, as well as Peter Jackson, the Director of King Kong and The Lord of the Rings. Jackson shot a short WWI feature Crossing the Line in New Zealand back in 2007 with two prototype Red One cameras and the clips I’ve seen are impressive. Red One cameras have also been used on Liman’s Jumper, and Alex Proyas’ soon-to-be-released drama, Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage.

Although the Red One cameras aren’t targeting the average consumer, the Scarlet model may be configured to come closer in price to the Canon EOS 5D Mk II. But that is already in the hands of a wide-range of customers, including The Guardian’s staff photographers, news agencies and other imaging professionals.

The general consensus is the Canon produces the better video quality than the more affordable Nikon D90, but it’s early days and others with a vested interest in video, such as Sony and Panasonic, have yet to respond. What’s more, while the quality is high there’s little of the convenience found on the latest HD camcorders for the consumer.

One promising sensor format for the consumer has been available now for a couple of months. Dubbed Micro Four Thirds by Panasonic, the latest development in DSLR style cameras is the diminutive 12-megapixel G1. Like the original Four Thirds DSLRs from Olympus, Leica and Panasonic’s own Lumix L1 and L10 models, the Lumix G1 uses the same size sensor (slightly smaller again than APS-C) but, ironically, forgoes the traditional but bulky reflex mirror and pentaprism in favour of an electronic viewfinder. While not dissimilar to so-called bridge cameras, the G1 is the first of its kind to feature interchangeable lenses, and, without the camera mirror, they can be made so much smaller too.

Well known for their small 35mm SLRs in the 70’s and 80’s and more recently with models like the Four Thirds E-420 Olympus has shown a prototype compact camera based on the same format. It too will have a range of high-quality lenses, but will also share the same lens mount allowing compatibility with Panasonic’s mFT lenses.

Despite the economic meltdown, new models based on the format are eagerly anticipated by the retail trade. Both the Olympus and the G1 are aimed at the compact digital camera user who wants better (DSLR) quality from a larger sensor and because it works so well we’re likely to see other names enter the fray, using APS-C sensors perhaps. Unfortunately, the G1 doesn’t feature HD video but Panasonic say it will be a feature of new models to come this year.

For the past fifty years or so then, 35mm SLRs and more recently digital SLRs have offered enthusiasts and professionals alike a good balance between portability and picture quality that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But for the consumer, the next step may simply be around the corner.


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