Digital Guru: What Will Your Future Camera Look Like?

by John Rettie

The Hasselblad Lunar was the most controversial camera unveiled at Photokina. Does this mean traditional camera manufacturers are going to rely on boutique cameras to stay in business?

November 16, 2012

 In last month’s Rangefinder, several key journalists and analysts in the photography field discussed their thoughts on the state of the industry in “Cameras and Technology: An Industry on the Move.” On the whole, I agreed with a lot of their statements, and change seemed to be the common thread. 

That article was written right before Photokina, which took place at the end of September, and though I did not attend, I was provided with information about the new cameras unveiled there.

So what was the theme at the show, according to attendees and industry pundits? Change and connectivity. It’s apparent that we’ve reached a crossroads with an uncertain future for camera manufacturers. 

The biggest news from Photokina—and since then—concerned Sony. The Japanese conglomerate announced the first compact camera with a full-size (35mm), 24-megapixel sensor, a partnership with Hasselblad to produce ultra-expensive, unique-looking cameras, and lastly, a financial partnership with Olympus.

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, with its fixed 35mm Carl Zeiss lens, is just what many enthusiast photographers have been wanting: a small camera that produces high-quality images. However, because it costs $2,800, its only benefit over an equivalent DSLR is the smaller size. The lack of interchangeable lenses makes it far less versatile.

The partnership with Hasselblad is a strange one, as the cameras shown so far will only really appeal to those who don’t mind a camera that costs tons of money. The functionality of the Lunar camera is not much different from a Sony NEX-7. Of course we may see some more exciting cameras from the partnership in the future.

It’s been common knowledge for some time that Olympus was looking for a partner since suffering from financial scandals that had nothing to do with its products. Sony’s investment is mainly in Olympus’ medical business, for which Olympus is justifiably best known. Until recently, Olympus had been a leader in many new camera technologies. By joining forces with Sony, which is also leading the way in high-end mirrorless cameras, we will hopefully see some good cameras and lenses from the partnership in the future. 

In many ways, Canon and Nikon were the least adventurous at Photokina. Having said that, their new DSLR cameras with full-frame sensors at a much more affordable price have been greeted with joy by those who have yearned for a full-frame camera but could not justify the cost. Sadly, neither of these cameras had all the features many of us would like and are offered by other DSLRs costing the same or less. For example, both are missing a rotating rear screen. The Canon 6D lacks a built-in flash, which the Nikon D600 does have. On the other hand, Canon has moved the needle with GPS and Wi-Fi connectivity included. The Nikon D600 still needs annoying add-on accessories to perform these functions. 

Software is the Future

It’s been said before and it’s now commonly accepted that the basic point-and-shoot camera market has been taken over by smart phones. 

I’ll bet a majority of Rangefinder readers use an iPhone as a camera on many occasions, and are happy with the results. No, it’s not a suitable camera for professional wedding photography, but it is most definitely a substitute for a pocketable compact camera that many of us used to carry with us when we did not want to be burdened by the heft of a DSLR and large lenses.

Ever since digital cameras appeared on the market back in the 1990s, innovations have happened in compact cameras before they have in DSLRs. That was not surprising, as a professional photographer needed a robust camera with familiar controls. Image quality—not digital bells and whistles—was the number one priority in a DSLR.

To a large extent, this is still true today. Most buyers of DSLRs are conservative and still desire a camera with familiar controls and features. Canon and Nikon users are well looked after in this regard. Anyone can pick up the newest model and immediately be able to use it without reading the manual. 

Ironically, this has put traditional camera manufacturers, especially Canon and Nikon, at a distinct disadvantage. Because they are losing the mass market, they cannot experiment with new features in compact cameras. Yet if they experiment on DSLR cameras, they run the risk of alienating their “old” buyers who do not necessarily want these new features—at least not yet.

When you think about it, today’s camera is basically a computer with an image sensor and a lens. That’s how I would describe an iPhone. It seems that for the majority of users, the phone part of the iPhone is the least important. My son, for example, now uses his iPhone as his TV, game player, Internet portal, camera and occasionally for making phone calls. He hasn’t touched his old PC in over a year.

No wonder the success of smart phones has led to hundreds of innovative add-ons—both software and hardware.

It’s in the software area that the camera manufacturers have fallen far behind. Can you imagine what you’d be able to do with your camera if it was an open platform and third-party developers could add functionality? 

This is where I think there will eventually be tremendous growth. At least Nikon has jumped on this development with the recently announced Coolpix S800c camera, which uses the Android operating system. It’ll be interesting to see what becomes of this. If developers can really access the camera’s core functions, we will end up with a smart camera.

The irony is that thanks to smart phones, photography today is more popular than ever because it’s so easy for a person to snap photographs and instantly have them viewable online and distributed to family and friends at zero cost.

As the photography bug gradually catches on with many smart phone users, they’ll want to move up to a better camera; however, they won’t want to give up the connectivity and expandability (in software) they’ve enjoyed with their smart phones. 

Not surprisingly, new camera users want a camera with a good lens, great quality, ease of use and all the bells and whistles. Few of them want a bulky DSLR. That’s why the growth of small mirrorless cameras is ensured—they meet newcomers’ needs. Yet most of these cameras are still lacking the connectivity and upgradability capabilities expected by new users who have been groomed on smart phones.

It’s easy to see why Canon and Nikon are in a quandary. If they develop leading-edge, small cameras with interchangeable lenses and all the necessary features, they will inevitably cannibalize sales of their DSLR cameras and, worse yet, their high-profit large lenses. That’s why the next few years will be crucially important to these two camera giants. Will they be able to maintain their market share against companies like Sony, Olympus and, to a lesser extent, Panasonic, Pentax and Fujifilm, who can afford to concentrate on offering the most exciting, leading-edge cameras because they do not need to worry about cannibalizing their pro-level DSLR sales, since they are so small or non-existent?

I must admit that as an “old” photographer who has been using Nikon and Canon SLRs and DSLRs for almost 40 years now, I am of the old school that still likes a traditional DSLR. However, I am more than appreciative of smaller and lighter cameras that don’t kill my back when on assignment. 

In an attempt to find out if this new breed of cameras can work on a pro shoot, I recently photographed a rock group, a new car for a review, and an auto race. I used four cameras: a Nikon D600, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Sony A77 and an iPhone4S. Granted, this is not what a normal photographer, wedded to one system, would do, but I wanted to see how each would work out and which ones would prove best in different situations. Here in alphabetical order are my quick thoughts on these cameras. Which one do you think comes closest to the ideal future camera?

Apple iPhone 4S


HDR photo of 2013 Subaru Outback captured in Oregon on the iPhone 4S. ISO 64, 1/330th sec, f/2.4. © John Rettie

This camera was in my pocket at all times. I used it for quick grab shots and when I wanted to post an image immediately on Facebook. I also used it for HDR image capture, for which it works really well. In fact, I leave that setting on at all times, and because the camera saves the original non-HDR image, you always have the choice of two photos to use. I also use the iPhone to take shots when I want to capture the GPS coordinates, and my pro camera lacks that capability. Naturally, when I do not have one of my other cameras handy, the iPhone becomes my primary one. It’s also great for capturing quick video clips.

Olympus OM-D E-M5


Photo of rock band ZZ Top taken with an Olympus E-M5. ISO 3200, 1/25th sec, f/5.6, 14-42mm lens set at 42mm (84mm equiv). © John Rettie

The worst thing about this camera? Its name. I have to look it up every time I mention it! 

This was my camera of choice when I was recently in New York recently and wanted to do some street photography on the anniversary of 9/11. The camera is small and discrete, yet it offers good quality, an eye-level electronic viewfinder, and interchangeable lenses. It’s not pocketable, but it is easy to hide when necessary.

By sheer coincidence, I bumped into a person I knew, and found myself at a private party where ZZ Top was performing. The Olympus proved to be ideal for shooting stills as well as some video clips. The adjustable rear screen was useful when I wanted to shoot over all the people using their smart phones.

Nikon D600

Flying Ford Fiesta captured with the Nikon D600. ISO 3200, 1/400th sec, f/5.6, 24-85mm lens set at 75mm. © John Rettie

Up front, I can say that the all-new, full-frame 24-megapixel Nikon D600 was my favorite among these cameras, as it’s familiar, like an old friend. It has a regular optical viewfinder, a decent speed of operation, and the lenses work the way we old film photographers expect. This camera became my first choice when I drove 2,000 miles on a road trip from California to Idaho and back in a 2013 Subaru Outback. As many of the photos I took were grab shots, I left the camera on the P (for professional?) setting, and got some great shots with it. I also set the camera to HDR to improve the dynamic range in the harsh desert light. This is when I found a shortcoming: the D600 does not save a non-HDR image. One of my favorite shots was ruined because our dog moved during the exposure. The iPhone saves an unaltered version as well as the converted HDR image. Why can’t Nikon implement the same feature in an expensive DSLR?

Unfortunately, I did not have use of long Nikon lens when I photographed an auto race; consequently, I could only use it when I was able to get close to the action or in the garages. 

Sony A77

The last time I shot with a Sony A77, I did not have use of a long lens. This time, I had an 18-250mm zoom, so I used it most of the time when I photographed  a rallycross under the lights at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (especially useful because no photographers were allowed near some important parts of the race track).

The camera performed fine, but the electronic viewfinder is still not as easy on the eye as a regular optical viewfinder. Having said that, I became used to it after a day or two, and it did not trouble me so much. There’s no denying that the camera is fast; I often captured two or three frames without meaning to, thanks to its rated speed of 12 fps, compared to 5 fps for the D600. I shot the race at ISO 4000, which enabled a shutter speed of 1/320th sec. The noise was just acceptable and compared (surprisingly) favorably with the Nikon D600 at ISO 3200. 

Of course, switching back and forth between the D600 and the A77 was annoying at times, and I reckon I could have captured a better picture if I’d used the other camera! Once the higher fps of the Sony might have meant getting a better picture of two cars together, while on another occasion, the better low-light quality of the D600 might have produced a better picture. The bottom line is that I found both cameras worked well. After my initial hesitation about the Sony A77, I grew to like it and found the electronic viewfinder was not a disadvantage. 

What’s Next?


The question for today’s photographer is, which one of these cameras comes closest to meeting your future needs? © John Rettie

My next assignment is a quick trip to Europe to test the new VW Golf. The trip will involve several different flights, no action photos and only carry-on luggage for a week. Guess which cameras I’m planning to take? The Olympus OM-D E-M5 and my iPhone 4S. I know these two cameras will provide me with the images I’ll need. 

As sensor technology improves and cameras become more sophisticated—as well as smaller and lighter—I can see a future when a smart phone and a small mirrorless DSLR (like the Olympus) will merge and be more than sufficient to deliver the quality and functionality I need for most assignments. 

John Rettie, who resides in Santa Barbara, CA., has been covering digital photography since its earliest days. Contact him directly at john@johnrettie.com.

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