The Perfect Camera

October 19, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 20 Comments | |
The Perfect Camera Image

Main Image: Bastille Day firework display over Carcassonne, Aude, Languedoc-Rousillon, France. The quality of pictures have little to do with the camera used, but the tools are important. Canon 5D mkII, 70-200mm lens @ 180mm, 10 secs @f11 ISO 100.

It's inevitable. The 1D mkIV was out earlier in the year. Photokina has been and gone, but within the next few months a 1Ds mkIV is bound to be announced. Beyond that Canon are probably hatching a plot for the 5D mkIII, whilst over at Nikon, with the D3 variants and D700 in middle age successors will be gathering in the wings. So what? I'm happy with my existing set up. Do I need a new camera? No. Do I want a new camera? No. Will I acquire the 1Ds mkIV when it eventually appears? Probably.

I'm wearily resigned to that fact of life. Time was when cameras earned their keep over a decade. My Nikon F5s did 9 years and several hundred thousand miles of globetrotting service between 1996 and 2005. Now the life of a DSLR seems to be about 3-4 years maximum. A photographic retail trade that used to earn its bread and butter selling us consumables like film and paper now needs to sell us new hardware more often. But do we need them?

If the 1Ds mkIV is just a revamp with more pixels and HD video thrown in it's going to be a hard sell for Canon. I don't need more pixels, 21 MP is quite enough. Giving us more would be counterproductive; a greater pixel density means more noise and more memory requirements for negligible gains. The sensor resolution is already beyond the capabilities of the lenses to match, more pixels won't give us better quality. And HD video is useful for some, we're using it more and more for the Road Shows (insert link), DVDs and future web content, but with it already available on the 5D mkII and 7D it's unlikely to be the sole reason for the painful parting of hard earned cash. In these uncertain economic times persuading us beleaguered tax payers to fork out £5K+ for a few more pixels and video will be tough. People are nervous about their jobs and in the world of professional photography just surviving is an achievement. Never has the commercial and perceived value of a photograph been so low. No, if I was the person pulling the strings at Canon or Nikon I wouldn't be rushing into this; I'd wait and strive to produce a camera that gives pros and enthusiasts what they really need. I'd aim to produce the Perfect Camera at an affordable price.

Let's look at where we're at. If you're wondering why I'm only mentioning Canon and Nikon there is a reason; I have no idea at all how the other manufacturers pay the bills. We had a guest on one of our workshops (insert link) with a Sony, once. I vaguely remember someone with an Olympus. Apart from that it's been a 100% attendance record for the Big Two. And the camera that shows up on our guests tripods more than any other, maybe 60% of the time, is the Canon 5D mkII. In many ways Canon got it right with that one. I have one, it's a great camera. OK, I prefer the 1Ds mkIII because of details like the eyepiece curtain, auto bracketing options and the weather seals, but with a £3K price difference it's easy to see why the 5D is so popular. The quality of the 21 MP full frame sensor is every bit as good as its pro spec stable mate. But with both my current cameras there are things that drive me mad, convincing me that the people who design cameras have never actually used them on a cold, dark windy hill top. Camera designers give us functions because they can, not because we need them. Has anyone ever used the print facility on a 5D? They don't understand us, and have no notion of what we need our cameras to do in the middle of a poppy field or with the waves lapping around our tripod legs on a winters evening. So let's tell them.

But first we'll consider the positives. We've never had it so good. The quality and flexibility available from our state of the art DSLRs now is phenomenal. Prints over a meter wide from a sensor the size of a 35mm piece of film have the crispness and tonal qualities previously only associated with large cumbersome formats. I've just digested my Despatch from January 2004 (insert link) on this website and it reads like ancient history; those early DSLRs were pretty useless. Things have come on so far, and I'm not talking just about pixels. The technological developments that make the most impact on us out in the field are not usually the sexy ones. Take batteries for example; early digital cameras would run out of steam half way through one chilly autumnal dawn session, despite a night spent cuddling up to the charger. I now can expose for weeks with just two batteries. Camera monitors are so much better. Sensor cleaning isn't such a recurring headache. Noise is mostly invisible, even at high ISOs, and full frame sensors are now commonplace. Crucially lens performance is catching up with sensor resolution. In short cameras like the Canon 5DmkII and Nikon D700 are flexible, affordable tools that can deliver incredible results in the right hands. But they could be better. How?

The Perfect CameraStormy seas at Man O War Bay, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, England. Camera manufacturers don't seem to understand our need to slow exposures down. Canon 1Ds mkIII, 70-200mm lens @ 135mm, 1.3 sec @ f16, ISO 50 with a 0.9ND filter to prolong the exposure.

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nikon, camera, canon, DSLR, David Noton, perfect, best, ideal, perfect camera

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20 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Shubroto Bhattacharjee

Spot on, David!
Virtually all EOS cameras, right from the film days, have had an Auto Depth Of Field mode. With early models you aimed the focus-spot and obtained push-button focus at your two limit-distances, called Dep-1 and Dep-2; then you pushed the shutter button all the way.
The camera looked up its DOF tables, set the correct focus distance and aperture value to obtain a DOF extending from Dep-1 to Dep-2, set the shutter speed for correct exposure at that aperture and your set ISO, and took the picture.
In later versions, with multiple focus points becoming available, the camera established by itself the closest and farthest object-distances covered by its AF sensors, then danced the rest of the jig as described above.
I preferred the old method.
So there is still hope! [And I’m a Nikon user].

11:34 am - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#2 Dave

Some of the things you request have been done before, but the manufacturers then dropped out of DSLR production. The Kodak DCS SLR/n/c has ISO 6, and while the Fuji DSLRs don’t do actual HDR, they do have an extended highlight range.

What I’d find most useful is if the anti-alias / hot mirror filter was user swappable, with a range of different filters available, e.g. Normal, IR, UV, Normal with no AA. The camera should also able to auto-focus when using IR or UV.

Focus bracketing would also be useful for doing macro focus stacking.

11:53 am - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#3 Richard Polhill

Great article, thanks David.

12:02 pm - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#4 Michael

Great article, I hope the camera manufacturers read it and heed your advice! While they are at it I hope they pay attention to ensuring that we capture 100% of the scene with edges of the frame that are accurate (not 95% or worse as is often the case) and that we don’t get tunnel vision from viewing the scene in our viewfinder at 75% or 80% of actual - 1x magnification please!

12:34 pm - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#5 Greg

‘In the heat of the decisive moment selecting an AF point is a fiddle that is just not quick enough’

Canon could bring back Eye Control Focus. It is the fastest method of focus point selection I have ever used, and I miss it a lot.

To quote from Wikipedia on the EOS 3: ‘This system….allowed for picking one of the 45 points of the autofocus system simply by looking at it though the viewfinder. An infrared transmitter and receiver mounted around the eyepiece monitored the position of the iris, thus “knowing” where the photographer was looking and focusing on that point.’

1:02 pm - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#6 limes_inferior

Yep - I agree with Greg - i wonder why Canon doesn’t implemented Eye Control Focus in DSLR. I had EOS30 and it worked really good. Just look and shot - no more fancy menus, controls selectable zones etc. Simple and efficient.

2:13 pm - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#7 emptyspaces

Yup, I have an EOS Elan IIe with (count ‘em) three focus points, selectable simply by looking at them. However, I wish they were a tad farther apart.

Great article…with any luck we’ll see some of these wishes as features in our next DSLRs.

2:27 pm - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#8 John Cantrell

This article is good, but doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is wrong with modern camera ergonomic design.  The public will only pay for the “familiar” or the “hyped”... the radical will get ignored.  But it’s going to take radical thinking to overcome the current dearth of clever camera designs.

And yes, I too lament the loss of eye-control focus that was in my EOS Elan IIe.  Why would such a proven, useful technology have been abandoned?

4:59 pm - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

#9 Bill Gray

The “perfect camera” is the one you have on you at the time. Just bend and twist the hell out of the beast, break all the so-called rules of photography, and tweak the f**k out of the images in your image processing program of choice. Then, sit back and watch something beautiful unfold on your screen.

5:36 am - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

#10 Derek

Your view on Nikon/Canon and cameras designed by non-photographers is a common one. Depending on a company internal dynamics the design to production approval is largely driven by marketing. Nikon ad Canon (and to some extend Sony) are representing philosophy: “why risk what worked before, and potentially loose sales?”. For a piece of equipment designed by photographers one would have to look in another direction: for example Pentax, Ricoh, possibly Fujifilm. But this advice is only for people who do not care much about “what others have on their tripods” and do not attend workshops run by the manufacturers.

“A perfect camera” will never exist for obvious reasons: for me travelling with a full frame Canon and pointing my 70-200mm f2.8 L optics in direction of local people is, well, not what I like to do. I levy heavy equipment at home and travel light, I do not like to immediately stand out from the crowd as a rich tourist. Other photographers have different priorities.

Low ISO - you can not have it all. When designing an electronic device many conflicting decisions need to be made leading to compromises. Sure it is possible to make a sensor with a very low ISO, but that would compromise other sensor parameters, high ISO performance to start with. While low ISO is easy to achieve with a quality neutral density filter, there is no similar option to “attach something” and get higher ISO.

In defence of HDR - as every electronic effect, so is this one likely to be abused. It has some application: here are two examples when HDR helped me, and further down one example when I achieved better results without HDR:

BTW, please, insert those links, or delete “(insert link)”  :)

11:29 am - Wednesday, October 20, 2010

#11 Carlo Giorgi

Great post and great blog! But do you not think forum is better tool to discuss among photographers of techniques items?

5:48 am - Monday, October 25, 2010

#12 Steven

I have to go with Bill Gray on this one. Who can slip a massive camera into their pocket? That’s why I have a PS G10. The updates have been less than tempting.

Which is precisely why I pay special attention to the compact market and moan and curse the G11 and G12 for not improving on the G10 while maintaining the positives. Many things were improved, but looking at the images posted by the G12 have convinced me that MP still make a big difference. When I photograph a tree, I don’t want to see their edges blurred by the blue of the sky.

However, there are three things remaining on it that I would love to see: GPS tagging, a manual focus, and wireless remote control.

The Samsung NX100 is looking promising. However, I haven’t found many good sample photos. If it has everything I want, I might very well buy it.

3:54 am - Monday, November 1, 2010

#13 lilly

i love these pics.

3:29 pm - Thursday, November 4, 2010

#14 mads

I am with the people not wanting another big camera with huge lens to be left at home next to the current large camera while I take my lighter and handier µ4/3 camera with me to actually do photography.

Although infinitely more practical than a Medium Format Hasselblad, the FF camera is going the same way, being used mainly in “controlled” environments like the studio and arragned photo shoots, while smaller and nimbler camera systems are taking over the day to day photography.

Panasonic have already released a camera where you just touch the screen to focus there and while they have yet to make selective gradation directly in the shoot they have added other nice feature… One of these is auto hyperfocal based on aperture and FoV.

9:31 am - Thursday, November 18, 2010

#15 Warren

David, your post demonstrates that behind every sharp photo is a sharp mind.

My 5d mkII is far and away the best camera I’ve ever had my hands on.  With good glass, it’s unbeatable.  I don’t mind the low-ISO problem so much, because filters can solve it.  However, I fully agree re. the lack of a mirror-lock-up button (how hard is that?), and the need for smart DOF. 

I also agree with Dave that the ability to swap out the internal IR filter would be sweet.  For example, the 5dmkII is a near-perfect instrument for astrophotography, but the IR filter gets in the way.

No one camera can do everything.  As an avid hiker, I’d love to have a fully capable portable camera in my kit.  The G12 comes close (gotta love those ISO and exposure comp dials!), but why in the world did they jack up the cost of the thing by incorporating a totally lame video mode?  Give me an f2 lens, a useful viewfinder (even if it’s electronic) and a lens-ring manual focus and zoom instead… then I’ll buy one.

11:04 pm - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

#16 Jimmac


your comment re having a manual zoom ring struck a chord for me.  Power zooms such as my Canon G11 have not enough steps for accurate framing.  Let a manufacturer produce a camera with man. and prog. modes, a manual zoom and a decent eye level(optical V/Finder and they’ve got my money.  Oh, by the way add on the Canon G6 f2.0-f3.0 lens with a little more zoom and no movie mode and they’ve really got me.

1:26 am - Thursday, November 25, 2010

#17 Buddy

Is it possible to make a DSLR version of the Nikon FM or the Minolta SRT101?  There are only three variables I want to control e.g. focal point, aperture and shutter speed and these are not hard to do if you have two hands. There is a fourth variable if you have a zoom lens, but even with a zoom lens, two hands are enough. Today’s cameras you have the option to go manual, but it is a pain compared to doing it on the Nikon FM or Minolta SRT101.

3:23 pm - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

#18 John Hoppy

David, Your article was brilliant, but do any of the camera makers listen to guys in the know - like yourself - about what their customers WANT, rather than what they prefer to MAKE?  I too had an EOS30 with Eye Control: a superb feature, but Canon discontinued it rather than develop it further.  Who really needs all those AF points?  Like ever-increasing Megapixels, they’re flogging us the idea we NEED all these features. I ruffled a few feathers in another forum for suggesting Noise was no longer an issue for the bulk of us, but Noise and Megapixels seem to be the watchword of camera reviewers trying to flog us the next ‘must-have’.  It’s about sales, not about what makes a good tool to do the job.  Who is listening?

4:34 pm - Saturday, January 1, 2011

#19 Olivier Mermod

I try to contact Mark Goldstein for :
- say thanks for the most useful “ease of use” and well documented pèage about Lumix FZ45
- obtain permission to place this text on my page regarding my cameras and experiences

Thanks for the contact and possible reply.

6:45 am - Sunday, January 23, 2011

#20 Clipping Path

It is a nice article about a good topics.Thank you.

5:15 pm - Friday, November 6, 2015