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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


Differences In Use

Film cameras are used to record images. Digital cameras are used to not only record images but also review them, edit them, share them with family and friends, print them and, with a few cameras, even transmit them wirelessly via Wi-Fi. As John Knaur, Olympus America’s product manager for digital SLRs, points out, "As people change the way they use cameras, the cameras have to change."

Multitasking has impacted both design and features with digital cameras. For example, Knaur explains that people prefer to use the LCD monitor to compose images when shooting with compact digital cameras, so designers can eliminate the optical finder, which makes room for a bigger LCD. But holding the camera away from the body to use the LCD monitor is less stable than holding the camera up to the eye in the conventional manner. So manufacturers are incorporating some form of image stabilization in many compact digital cameras to help counteract the less steady shooting method.

People also check their photographs on the monitor and share images on the spot, so monitors must be viewable, meaning that LCD has to be big and bright, and playback has to be simple. Monitors also are used to make camera settings via on-screen menus, and these have to be easy to navigate. And for outdoor photographers, the monitor has to be viewable outdoors. Newer technologies are providing such monitors, but it’s a good idea to check outdoor viewability before buying a camera for outdoor use. (You also can buy an aftermarket monitor hood, such as those from Hoodman, for easy outdoor viewing.)

Another great digital camera design feature is the tilting/rotating monitor. With this feature, you can shoot at high, low and other odd angles quite comfortably. You don’t have to lie down on damp ground to capture those stunning low-angle scenic perspectives or contort yourself to compose flower and insect close-ups.

In 1998, Nikon introduced a new twist on the tilting monitor—literally—with the two-segment (monitor in one segment, lens in the other) Coolpix 900; today, the Coolpix S10 and S4 offer the latest incarnation of this feature.

Live-view monitors are one of digital imaging’s best features, as they allow you to see what the image will look like before you shoot it. Live-view monitors are especially useful for extreme close-up work, as many compact digital cameras will focus down to a couple of inches or even less than one inch.

Compact digital cameras have had live viewing from the start, but digital SLR users had to wait until 2006, when Olympus first introduced a tilting live-view monitor in the Evolt E-330. That camera (and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 and the Leica Digilux 3 that followed it) took advantage of a slick design that used an offset porro-mirror optical finder, but Olympus has followed it up with two conventional-looking D-SLRs with live-view monitors, the EVOLT E-510 and E-410. Additionally, Canon offers a live-view mode in its new pro D-SLR, the EOS-1D Mark III. So far, the EVOLT E-330 is the only D-SLR with a tilting monitor.

Digital SLRs

The transition from film to digital in SLR design was even more complicated than with compacts because SLR users demanded better image quality, quicker performance and more shooting features and capabilities. They also wanted their cameras to be "familiar" feeling and operating like the film SLRs they had long been using.

Film SLR manufacturers took two routes into the digital arena. Most adapted their film SLR technology, while Olympus and its Four Thirds System partners decided to start from scratch. There are advantages to both.

Adapting film SLRs means you already have some components (lenses, autofocusing and metering systems and more), and your current film camera users will have familiar camera bodies and can use their existing lenses—a big advantage for pros who have many thousands of dollars tied up in their "glass."

Chuck Westfall, Canon U.S.A.‚’s director of media and customer relationship, points out that Canon‚’s designers anticipated the future digital move when designing its original EOS film SLRs, including things like fully electronic lens mounts and E-TTL flash that provided the benefits of TTL metering while eliminating the liabilities of off-the-focal-plane flash metering for digital cameras. Canon also designs and manufactures its own CMOS image sensors (in sizes from "SPC-C" to "full-frame") and image processors, making it easier to ensure that everything works well together.

On the other hand, starting from scratch means you can optimize everything for digital photography. Olympus took this route, developing (with partners) the Four Thirds System, which is based around a 17.3x13mm image sensor and smaller-diameter lenses that allow for more effective light transmission to the sensor and smaller system components.

We don’t have the space in this article to go into a full examination of the Four Thirds System (you can find a lot of information about the system at the Olympus website), but suffice it to say that the top camera brands deliver the goods regardless of the route their manufacturers took to transition from film to D-SLR. You’ll find big-name pros doing outstanding nature and wildlife photography with Canon, Nikon and Olympus D-SLRs.


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