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Friday, June 1, 2007

Behind The Design

A look at the art and science of creating the digital cameras we use today, from tiny pocket models to pro D-SLR systems

Behind the designThere’s more to designing a camera than just figuring out how to fit all the stuff the marketing and engineering people want into a light-tight box. A camera must meet the required feature and performance specs, of course, but these days, it also must be user-friendly and attractive.

The dilemma facing camera designers when moving from film to digital was that working photographers transitioning from film wanted familiar shooting devices that functioned like their film cameras but produced quality digital images, while consumers wanted easy-to-use devices with which it would be easy to share their images, not just shoot them.

The first digital compact cameras were boxy and not very compact—one major manufacturer’s first, "compact" model (circa 1996) measured 6.3x3.6x2.3 inches and weighed 14.8 ounces, while offering a whopping 0.57-megapixel resolution and a fixed-focal-length 50mm lens. Contrast that with the same company’s most recent digital compacts, a slick 7.1-megapixel 10x zoom model that measures just 3.5x2.4x1.1 inches and weighs 7.8 ounces, and a stylish 7.1-megapixel model with a 3x zoom lens and a 3.0-inch LCD monitor, yet measures just 3.6x2.2x0.8 inches and weighs a mere 4.6 ounces.

Compact digital cameras don’t have to make room for a roll of film and a film-transport mechanism and can employ smaller-diameter lenses because their image sensors are much smaller than a 35mm film frame. There’s a lot that designers do have to fit in, including digital controls, the usual camera controls, the image sensor, an A/D converter and an image-processing engine, a slot for a memory card, a battery of sufficient capacity to handle the much higher power requirements of a digital camera over a film one and, of course, that indispensable LCD monitor.

A quick tour of camera manufacturers’ websites or a glance through a camera store’s display ad in a newspaper or magazine will show that digital camera designers have done a fabulous job getting more and more features and performance into smaller and smaller packages, while generally rendering those packages visually attractive, comfortable to hold and easy to use.

Digital SLRs have progressed wonderfully, too, transitioning from "Frankenstein" creations that looked much like a film-camera body shell with a large digital component grafted on the bottom to today’s sleek, high-performance imaging devices. A 1.3-megapixel pro D-SLR sold for around $20,000 in 1995; today, you can choose from more than half a dozen 10-megapixel models for less than $1,000 (some well under), and a 16.7-megapixel pro D-SLR with every conceivable feature and capability sells for about one-third of what that first D-SLR cost, while being smaller and lighter and much more comfortable to hold than the original 1.3-megapixel model.

Yes, this is a great time to be a photographer. We’ve never been offered so much capability for so little.

Doing The Deed

It’s not easy to design a digital camera. Typically, the designer or design team is handed a set of specifications (dimensions and weight, LCD size, lens focal-length range, etc.) and tasked with fitting the parts into a device of that size, with everything efficiently located. Where you put the lens, viewfinder, shutter button, LCD monitor and even the tripod socket really does matter. It has to be user-friendly and look good, too!

Performance is up to the designers of the camera’s image sensor, the processing engine, the AF and metering systems and the lenses, but putting all those components together into a functional package for the user is a real challenge. Today's digital cameras, by and large, provide excellent image quality and performance and tremendous value for the dollar. Of course, some are more stylish than others, but as the saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In the accompanying pictures and captions, we present some of our favorite stylish digital cameras.


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