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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
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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 6.3×3.6×2.3 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 3.5×2.4×1.1 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 3.6×2.2×0.8 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.

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.

Olympus Evolt E-510
Olympus Evolt E-510

Here’s an original sketch of the new Olympus Evolt E-510 by industrial designer Jun Takahashi of the Olympus Imaging Corporate Design Center in Tokyo. The next step is hand-carved clay models, then wood block models to show the overall shape of the camera and, ultimately, the surface details, such as texture and layout of the controls.

Canon PowerShot TX1Canon PowerShot TX1
The new Canon PowerShot TX1 is the latest in a line of cigarette-pack-sized consumer cameras that began with the company’s tiny Elph film camera more than a decade ago. The TX1 contains a 10x optical zoom lens (39-390mm 35mm-camera equivalent), macro focusing to the front lens element in Super Macro mode, the ability to shoot high-definition 1080 x 720-pixel movies at 30 fps, with stereo sound and MovieSnap mode to capture high-quality 7.1-megapixel still images while recording movies, and a twist-out Vari-Angle Wide-View LCD monitor. Dimensions are 3.5×2.4×1.1 inches and weight is 7.8 ounces.

D-SLR with offset TTL viewfinder/live-view LCD monitor

Olympus EVOLT E-330 with tilted monitor
Olympus EVOLT E-330 back
Leica Digilux 3 back
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 back

Three design approaches to the “D-SLR with offset TTL viewfinder/live-view LCD monitor” concept: the Olympus Evolt E-330 (left), Leica Digilux 3 (center), Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 (right). The EVOLT E-330 features a tilt-out LCD monitor, while the Digilux 3 retains a Leica look and feel, and the DMC-L1 has a “clean” appearance.

Nikon Coolpix S10Nikon Coolpix S10
The Coolpix S10 is Nikon’s current “twist” on the rotating-monitor concept. Besides easy odd-angle shooting with the 2.5-inch LCD, the S10 offers 6 megapixels, a 10x optical zoom (equivalent to 38-380mm on a 35mm camera), sensor-shift Vibration Reduction and more in a 4.4×2.9×1.6-inch, 7.8-ounce package.



Samsung NV11
Samsung NV11

Samsung’s NV series of compact digital cameras features futuristic good looks and a nice array of features. The top-of-the-line 10-megapixel NV11 sports a slim, black, stainless-steel body with the NV-series blue ring around the lens, an intuitive Smart Touch user interface, a 2.7-inch high-definition LCD monitor, a 5x Schneider optical zoom lens (38-190mm 35mm-camera equivalent) and ISOs up to 1600. The camera also can shoot MPEG-4 VGA (640 x 480) movies at 30 fps, with 5x optical zooming, for up to 4 GB duration, assuming you have an SDHC card of that capacity loaded.

Canon EOS-1D Mark III back
Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro back
Nikon D2Xs back

Pro D-SLRs are even more complex. Here are three: the Canon EOS-1D Mark III (left), Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro (center) and Nikon D2Xs (right). The EOS-1D Mark III will feel familiar to Canon pro-model users, film or digital, while the D2Xs and Nikon-based FinePix S5 Pro will make Nikon pros feel right at home.

Pro D-SLRs


Canon U.S.A.
(800) OK-CANON

(800) 800-FUJI

(800) 222-0118

(800) NIKON-UX

(800) 622-6372

(800) 211-PANA

(800) 877-0155


(800) 896-6858

(800) 222-SONY