Thursday, July 2, 2009

raising the game: the TBR camera company

Let us suppose that you are in charge of a camera company. And you are in the enviable position of building the best cameras in the world, so people actually want to buy them. We'll call ourselves TBR camera, for arguement's sake.

If you are Nikon, you refresh things in a regular cycle, and put the latest technology into the newest camera, regardless of the target market - this is why the D3 and D3x lack sensor cleaning, but the D5000 has it.

If you are Canon, you structure your product lineup in such a way as to make the user pay incrementally more each time they need another feature. Not that long ago, you used to have to buy a pro body to get spot metering - when the Nikon D40 had it!

If you are Pentax, you do your own thing and ignore everybody else.

If you are Olympus, you try to be stubborn and fight the competition with an inherently limited product: for the same pixel count, bigger sensors are always better. The other things they promised - smaller lenses, smaller bodies, cheaper cameras - haven't materialized. The E-3 is just as big as a D700, and I sure as hell know which I'd rather have.

If you are Leica, you build the best lenses, struggle with the body (M users are a traditional, conservative lot) and outsource your electronics. And then charge an arm and a leg because German hand labor is expensive, and you don't have Nikon or Canon volume, so you have no economies of scale, and you have to charge more...and that's how a lens hood ends up being $150, a 1.25x viewfinder magnifier $400, and so on.

TBR camera is run by purists. We believe strongly in the photographer being the creator of the image, not the camera, so we'd have a policy like this: you can't buy a camera that exceeds your skill level, until your work has shown you deserve it. In return you will get the best, most customizable tool money can buy. Our product lineup would look like:

1. Point and shoot model for the mass market. It's auto-everything, with no idiotic scene modes, no aperture priority (there is NO depth of field control on a small sensor anyway), a built in flash, decent say 25-125 equivalent lens (the Leica thingy on the Panasonic FX48 is very nice). It would shoot JPEGs with two looks: VIVD and B&W, and RAW - the latter designed for later work, retaining as much tonal info as possible, and with minimal sharpening and saturation. The only manual controls you have are flash on, flash off, slow flash, and exposure compensation. And it would look nice, so consumers would buy it. No silly pixel counts, or weeny sensors. The 10MP sensor from the Panasonic LX3 would be nice. Everybody would be allowed to have one, and should, so we can afford the R&D for the more interesting stuff:

2. Skip the compact prosumer camera. It's an oxymoron and the image quality would be no better than 1.

3. A small DSLR. I have no real concept of this one, other than it should be something like a Nikon D90 in size, DX sensor, with full manual controls, NO idiot scene modes, NO video (use a proper video camera) and perhaps the same sensor - it's a nice sensor. In fact, a Nikon D90 with some of the crap stripped out of it would probably be perfect. You can't buy one until you master the point and shoot. Maybe we'd let wedding photographers have it, but then again maybe not, because they'd ruin the market for everybody else by undercutting the pros and making it unprofitable - in the end meaning we'd get shitty snapshots (snapshits? crapshots?). Lenses: an 18-200 swiss army knife, and a 35/1.8 to show us how creative and deserving of the pro DSLR you are. Maybe a flash and a 105/2 macro if you're good.

4. The professional DSLR. A little larger than the small DSLR, but metal bodied, sealed and abuse proof, with the ability to take a battery grip for extended shooting sessions or balancing with big lenses. Kind of like the Pentax K-7, but with the sensor and speed of the D3 without the AA filter. No built in flash because it wouldn't be powerful enough to be useful, and besides, you have ISO 25,600 for emergencies. You would have to be a proper photojournalist to have one of these. Lenses: say an 18-50/2.8, a 50-200/2.8, 80-400/4-5.6, 300/2.8, 400/2.8, 600/4 and teleconverters for general duty; 24 and 50 tilt shifts, fast 35/50/85 1.4s for portraits, rounded out by the same 105/2 macro and flash.

5. Studio professionals would get the same as 4. but with the D3x sensor, again without the AA filter, because you really need to be shooting under controlled conditions to make the most of it. The sensor would also be square, so you can forget about the portrait grip. You WOULD get a built in flash though; these are useful to trigger your strobes. No JPEG mode, because you wouldn't be happy with our in-camera processing choices anyway. RAW only. Fine art, commercial, studio, photographers qualify. Same lenses.

6. The photojournalist's alternative tool. Think Leica M, but with a few useful upgrades like a more ergonomic shutter release, the innards of 4., an improved burst rate, and more info in the finder like full time aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Proper mechanical ISO and exposure compensation knobs somewhere. Lenses (all prime, of course): 15/4, 24/1.4, 35/1, 50/1, 90/1.4. And let's throw in two other useful gubbins: screwed into a compartment on the side of the camera (instead of 1001 useless connections for HDMI, GPS, WIFI, LAN, whatever) - we'd include bayonet fit 0.5x and 1.3x diopters. The normal finder window shows 35, 50 and 90 frame lines. The 1.3x would show 50 and 90 for enhance focusing precision, and the 0.7x would show 15, 24, 35 and 50 eliminating the need for an external finder.

One compact, three DSLRs with fourteen lenses and two teleconverters, one RF with five lenses, and a single system flash. Not much considering even Leica currently makes four types of 50mm lens alone. (f0.95, f1.4, f2.0, f2.5)

Oddly enough, thanks to the myriad proliferation of cameras available these days, we can actually get pretty close to what we want (1. FX48; 3. D90; 4. D700; 5. 5DII; 6. M8/8.2). Unfortunately, we can't restrict who uses them, so we have people who buy 5DIIs and copious amounts of expensive glass to take crappy photos of their cat, or worse, buy a M8 and don't learn how to focus properly, so we have crappy blur photos of their cat and forums full of complaints about how the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH is softer than a baby's bottom. But if we could, think about the consequences: we would never have to look at crapshots again. It would be doing a service to society at large: people hiring photographers would actually get what they pay for, photographers with skill could make a decent living without being undercut and relegated to the breadlines by rank amateurs with expensive gear and not enough skill to shoot their way out of a paper bag, and the rest of the world's media would be so much more pleasant to look at.

Food for thought.

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