DIG­I­TAL CAM­ERA CURIOUSITIES

TO­DAY’S CAM­ERA DE­SIGN­ERS LOOK LIKE A FAIRLY CON­SER­VA­TIVE BUNCH COM­PARED TO THOSE TRAIL-BLAZ­ING THE FIRST FOR­AYS INTO DIG­I­TAL CAP­TURE DE­VICES, WHEN THE NEW FREE­DOMS IN BODY CON­FIG­U­RA­TION WERE EX­PLOITED TO THE FULL. THE WEIRD AND WON­DER­FUL FROM THE YEARS

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A post-film era of­fered free­dom from film rolls, cas­settes and car­tridges, prompt­ing a quirky set of early dig­i­tal de­signs.

It’s just a lit­tle ironic that to­day’s most pop­u­lar dig­i­tal cam­eras are those which reprise clas­sic de­signs from the film era… re­flex or rangefinder, com­plete with tra­di­tional di­als, eye­level viewfind­ers and even pic­ture modes which repli­cate the look of pop­u­lar emul­sions. It wasn’t al­ways this way. In the early days of dig­i­tal cam­era de­sign, imag­i­na­tions ran wild as the shack­les of ac­com­mo­dat­ing film were loosed and, as long as the lens’s op­ti­cal axis stayed cen­tred on the imag­ing sen­sor, just about body con­fig­u­ra­tion was fea­si­ble. Con­se­quently, there were nu­mer­ous ad­ven­tur­ous, in­no­va­tive and down­right quirky vari­a­tions on the theme of the dig­i­tal com­pact cam­era, some more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers.

While the very first truly ac­ces­si­ble and af­ford­able dig­i­tal com­pacts – Ko­dak’s DC20 and DC25 (both launched in 1996) – were fairly con­ven­tional de­signs, af­ter these ev­ery­body went troppo. For the next few years, the cam­era world was turned up­side down with a daz­zling ar­ray of weird and won­der­ful cre­ations.

These were ex­cit­ing times and, for a while there, just about ev­ery­body who made ei­ther still or video cam­eras was hav­ing a go. Of course, the mar­ket was never that big. It was con­sumer elec­tron­ics com­pa­nies such as JVC, Hi­tachi and Sanyo – who were es­sen­tially just ‘test­ing the wa­ter’ – that bailed out first, but the on­go­ing in­vest­ment needed to stay com­pet­i­tive soon started to claim a grow­ing list of pho­to­graphic brands too. Some were early ca­su­al­ties, but even­tu­ally the roll­call in­cluded Agfa, Con­tax, Chi­non, Kon­ica, Mi­nolta, Po­laroid, Rollei, Yashica and the big­gest scalp of them all, Ko­dak. It’s a topic for a dif­fer­ent ar­ti­cle, but it’s worth not­ing here that the demise of the orig­i­nal Ko­dak had much more to do with poor man­age­ment than the com­pany’s ex­per­tise in dig­i­tal imag­ing which was, for quite a while, on a par with that of any of the Ja­panese cam­era mak­ers… if not su­pe­rior.

The­ory… And Re­al­ity

It was in­evitable, how­ever, that the early en­thu­si­asm for dig­i­tal cap­ture would be tem­pered by the grow­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that the new con­ve­niences – at­trac­tive though they un­doubt­edly were – still wouldn’t de­liver as big a growth in the still cam­era mar­ket as had been ini­tially en­vis­aged.

Yes, dig­i­tal cap­ture cer­tainly made pho­tog­ra­phy more ac­ces­si­ble, and elim­i­nated many of the per­ceived draw­backs – such as wait­ing for film to be pro­cessed – but as clever as many of the ear­lier cam­era de­signs un­doubt­edly were, there were still is­sues for the av­er­age con­sumer with com­plex­ity, cost and – in those pre-WiFi days – ac­tu­ally be­ing able to do much with the im­age files that didn’t in­volve us­ing other hard­ware. The ad­di­tional in­vest­ment and ex­per­tise needed here meant that dig­i­tal cam­eras were still more of a spe­cial­ist prod­uct and, in fact, many ca­sual snap­pers who had been us­ing cheap point-and-shoot 35mm film com­pacts were left with no di­rect al­ter­na­tives for quite some time. By the time the mar­ket set­tled down and lower cost dig­i­tal com­pacts be­came avail­able, the cam­era-equipped smart­phone ar­rived to turn ev­ery­thing on its head again.

The re­turn to more tra­di­tional styling and de­sign for dig­i­tal cam­eras, es­pe­cially the in­ter­change­able lens modes, is in­dica­tive of a num­ber of things. For starters, like the steer­ing wheel, the sim­ple dial is hard to beat for ef­fi­ciency and ef­fi­cacy, while the eye-level viewfinder is not just about eas­ier fram­ing, but also a con­nec­tion with both the cam­era and the sub­ject.

There’s nearly 100 years of evo­lu­tion be­tween the early plate cam­eras and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Con­tax S 35mm SLR from 1949 or Le­ica’s ground-break­ing M3 35mm rangefinder model of 1954, both of which achieved a bal­ance of work­a­bil­ity, com­fort and over­all ef­fec­tive­ness that’s seen these ba­sic de­signs en­dure into the dig­i­tal era. It could be ar­gued these con­fig­u­ra­tions re­ally can’t be bet­tered. Se­condly, with the smart­phone now hav­ing so com­pletely re­placed the point-and­shoot cam­era, the mar­ket is again con­cen­trat­ing on the de­mands of higher-end users, who are tra­di­tion­ally… er, tra­di­tion­al­ists.

So it’s back to more fa­mil­iar themes in cam­era de­sign. But for a few dra­matic years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, there was seem­ingly no limit to what might be pos­si­ble. We will never see a time like it again.

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