A new form factor for an old friend...
DSLRs are the "high end" tools of amateur and professional photographers. While many believe their form factor is the perfect product of decades of refinement in ergonomics and function, it also means it might be stuck in the past. The way people are using these cameras has changed. A modern DSLR or mirrorless camera is not only used for still photography, but also used for video and film production and an entire ecosystem of accessories has emerged to augment the emerging fundamental flaws of its architecture. This is a brief exploration of what is possible when we part with tradition and design a system around these new realities.
Exposure is Not a Triangle
Exposure (how much light is allowed to reach the camera sensor), is the result of shutter speed, aperture size, and sensitivity (ISO). This is often presented as a triangle. This is a misnomer. Exposure is a 3-dimensional space best visualized as a cube with aperture size as the x axis, shutter speed as y, and ISO as z. This seems at odds with current camera controls, which typically require us to push individual buttons to change settings disparately, masking their relationships to each other and hiding the true nature of the trade offs between different settings. We should be able to navigate and “fly” within the exposure cube with one control, picking settings continuously and organically. Creating a paradigm for this could be a project on its own, but as a start, how about a trackball that allows us to navigate x (aperture) and y (shutter speed), surrounded by a jog dial that moves exposure in z (ISO)?
DSLRs democratized shallow depth of field a decade ago, enabling new levels of cinematic quality to even low end productions. Unfortunately, the ergonomics that serve still photography so well do not always translate to video work. The Canon Cinema line of movie cameras shows great awareness of this and includes a comfortable and adjustable handle that accommodates a variety of holding styles. And even if most will never shoot with a high end movie camera like this, we all know how nice it is to hold a tiny smartphone any way we need to in order to get the shot we want. It's time for DSLR and mirrorless cameras to offer the same flexibility.
Hot shoes are great. Why is there only one on most cameras? And why are there different connector types for audio, mic, external monitors, and charging? Develop a new high-bandwidth digital interface, make it structurally strong like a hot shoe, XLR, or Apple Lightning connector, embrace it as a standard, and place multiple instances all over the body for maximum expandability and ergonomic potential.
Embrace Smartphones and Existing Devices
Film cameras offered no way of viewing pictures immediately. Digital cameras brought this capability by integrating a display screen on the camera body. This screen has become a burden, however. Most of us already carry a high quality screen in our pockets if we have a smartphone. Drop the on-body screen to reduce size and power requirements. Dock with a phone that users likely already upgrade every year. Better yet, let's connect to an iPad. A tablet screen could also give us enough real estate for camera controls. Either way, we can use the other device's internet connection to post high quality images and video to Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, or continuously archive our RAW files to the cloud.
The possibilities offered by new points of view have proven too great to resist and it is now normal to strap thousands of dollars of camera equipment onto drones, cars, boats, helmets and everything else that moves. Creating a camera system that acknowledges this through multiple strong attachment points would give us the confidence to experiment more and create a new level of risky but amazing visuals.
My goal was to provoke thought and encourage change in a product category that I personally love, but that also irritates me through its resistance to change. I thought I'd blast through this exploration in a week or two, but I came back and revisited it over several months because the design challenges and tradeoffs are so interconnected and subtle. Truthfully, the DSLR/mirrorless/body+lens form factor is great at a lot of things (stability during still photography, for instance). Holding onto these strengths while embracing the future is no small task. I'm looking forward to seeing what camera makers can really do, however, when they finally decide to acknowledge how people are now using these types of cameras.