• When electronics meet photography...

    I’m not normally one to get all excited and blog about the latest bit of kit that’s just been announced. To be honest, I don’t generally follow the development of new equipment any more, more the ethos of it. But today Sony have announced their latest pellicle mirrored camera. It isn’t very interesting.

    What is worthy of some consideration though, is the rumour that Sony executives have announced that from now on they will concentrate on their translucent technology. This is a quiet, and potentially rather sly way, of telling us they’re giving up on traditional optical viewfinders.

    Of course, Sony wouldn’t be the first company to do this - Olympus dumped the traditional viewfinder when they effectively forgot about their E series of cameras and pretty much dumped the whole Four Thirds lens mount thing they’d worked so hard to develop.

    Even the famous “we don’t need a mirrorless camera” Nikon have now got the One series of miniscule cameras which are crammed full with tiny sensor and you can mount a range of tiny lenses on the front. It’s like bonsai for cameras.

    They’re not as tiny as the Pentax Q system though, which is so small nobody could actually find it in the shops. This was such a problem that Pentax had to release a larger, APS-C model version called the K-01 (catchy, I know).

    Of course, the big daddy in this market is still Micro Four Thirds lens mount used by Panasonic and Olympus. Many consider this to be the optimal size for compact type cameras as it offers a smaller imaging circle (and hence smaller lenses) than APS-C or full frame but still manages to pack in a decent sized sensor. Others don’t care about that sort of thing and just buy them because they like the styling.

    Sony disagree with the Four Thirds ethos though. Their NEX badged compact mirrorless cameras all contain APS-C sensors, which is wonderful… apart from the fact that the camera looks ridiculous as soon as you attach any lens at all.

    And I’ve not even mentioned the Samsung NX range, or the oddball but loveable Ricoh GXR modular system, or the Fuji XF mount. Some purists would even have me include the digital Leica rangefinders (the M8 and M9) and the Sigma DPs1 and DP2… I could go on. But I won’t.

    And what do all these cameras have in common? None of them have an optical viewfinder. Many have built in electric ones and some others have optional bolt on ones which you can buy separately, but none use a glass prism (or pentamirror) to look through the lens.

    Many decry this as a lack of traditional values or some other similar nonsense. Clearly, you can’t have an optical finder with out a mirror and the point of a mirrorless camera is, well, rather self explanatory. I’d rather have a proper glass prism viewfinder, but I don’t have a particular problem with electronic ones, so long as the resolution is good enough.

    For years I’ve complained that, with all the new technologies and clever designs, we’ve not had a genuinely new concept for a very long time. Some of these cameras (the Ricoh GXR for example) really are radical departures from the long standing norm.

    But I’m a hypocrite, and I’m the first to admit this. What I don’t like is the lack of ergonomic design and forethought in these cameras and it seems to me that the removal of a viewfinder gives manufacturers the opportunity to make nothing more than a square box.

    I realise this makes it much easier to fit in all the innards but it makes for much less interesting cameras and, more importantly, it makes for cameras that are awkward, uncomfortable and difficult to hold. Most of these cameras you have to hold between thumb and forefinger at arms length in the new photographers stance.

    Or they’re so small that they have no external controls and to change any settings you have to delve into a long and complex menu system.

    But these are only fiddly, little things. Some sort of viewing device is critical to a cameras operation. Call me a cynic but it seems to me the reason for the shift towards electronic viewfinders comes from the companies who are traditionally electronics manufacturers, not camera makers. It’s far cheaper for Sony to pop in a little screen and some wires than make a shiny ground glass optical prism. And it’s cheaper for everyone else to buy those little screens than make their own prisms.

    It may be too early to lament the passing of optical viewfinders just yet but I’d hate to see cameras ruined by the lowest common denominator.


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