Mostly random pontification, delivered at irregular intervals.


Resisting camera bloat

I recently upgraded my DSLR from a Canon EOS 10D to a Digital Rebel XT. Thanks to the universal consumer electronics upgrade plan, the final cost ended up quite minimal.

Some may object, how can an entry-level $800 camera be considered an upgrade over an originally $1500 prosumer body with a magnesium shell, glass pentaprism and two control wheels? One word: plastics. More precisely, the weight reduction plastics can offer. I usually carry a professional-grade camera in my gadget bag, and the 10D never made the cut because it is so heavy. A camera that gathers dust at home is not all that useful, so off to eBay it went.

Certainly, the 10D feels better in the hand, its viewfinder is not a claustrophobic little tunnel (although compared to my other cameras like as a Leica MP, the 10D's viewfinder is barely less squinty than the Rebel XT's). The 8 megapixels vs. 6 are immaterial - they amount to only 15% improvement in linear resolution, and megapixels don't matter that much anyway.

Film cameras have the bulk of their body forming an empty cavity to load film into. DSLRs, on the other hand, are densely packed with electronics, making them surprisingly heavy for their size. The 10D weighs 790 grams, compared to 715g for a rugged Nikon F3, 600g for the solid brass MP, and 490g for the Rebel XT. The weight around your shoulders is very perceptible at the end of the day. You are not even getting that much more in build quality, the thin magnesium shell on the 10D is there more for cosmetic effect than any real structural purpose — I have not found the 10D appreciably better constructed than the plastic-shelled D30. It certainly cannot compare with the 1.4mm thick copper-silumin-aluminum alloy walls on the F3.

This brings me to a pet peeve about high-end cameras. It seems Canon and Nikon have decided that for marketing reasons a professional camera has to be a heavy camera. I could easily afford a 1D MkII, but don't feel like carting along a 1.2kg behemoth with all the quiet understated elegance of a Humvee. This camera weighs almost twice as much as a F3 or a MP, both of which are supremely robust professional bodies.

In the era of film, I could understand that an integral motor drive weighs less and is more reliable than an separate one (on the other hand, the film equivalent to the 1D, the EOS 1V, is available without the motor drive to cut down on weight). The bulk of the 1D MkII, and its Nikon equivalents the D2H and D2X, is taken by an oversized portrait grip with slots for heavy batteries.

For digital bodies, however, many of these design choices are unwarranted. The Canon 1D MkII and 1Ds MkII use CMOS sensors that do not require the bulky high-current NiMH battery pack necessary to power the original CCD EOS 1D. Unfortunately Canon have kept the ungainly form instead of adopting the approach, used in their amateur cameras, of providing an optional portrait grip with room for spare batteries for those who absolutely must have them, but not saddle all users with heft and cost they do not want or need. Nikon does no better, their pro cameras all exceed the 1 kilogram mark, as did their film F4 and F5 bodies (the new F6 is under a kilogram without batteries, however). Perhaps that is why the F3 was so enduringly popular compared to the F4. Galen Rowell certainly preferred the F100 over the F4, and the F4 over the F5

There used to be a time when quality and miniaturization went hand in hand. Oskar Barnack invented the lightweight Leica precisely because he was asthmatic and could not lug heavy glass plate view cameras while hiking. Yoshihisa Maitani is justly celebrated for his incredibly light Olympus OM system, accompanied by excellent compact lenses, some of which are still unmatched by Nikon or Canon. Many professional cameras were available in expensive titanium versions to shave a few precious grams. But it now seems that designing a pro camera involves embracing bulk and unnecessary weight, for the simple reason a heavy camera feels more solid and reliable when you handle it in the shop. What next, adding lead ballast? Perhaps lead is not dense enough and depleted uranium will soon be the camera steroid of choice.

I do not see this trend improving over time. I guess my next and probably final digital camera purchase will be a Leica M Digital or the Zeiss Ikon version when they finally arrive on the market. Rangefinder makers still understand ergonomics.

Update (2006-04-08):

It seems pros are doing the same, as in this post from one who downgraded from the Canon EOS 1Ds MkII to a 5D, and apparently it looks like his is not an isolated case. Perhaps Canon will get the message with free-falling sales of big and heavy cameras.