Eye Level

May 24, 2011  •  Leave a Comment


Last time I talked about the pros and cons – as I see them – of the viewfinder and Live View when shooting with a DSLR, and suggested circumstances where one or the other wins out.

Well, making the best of the existing DSLR design is one thing, but I did conclude that it’s a fudge. Can we do better? What’s the future for camera design? I’m not an industry insider and I don’t know what the boffins may have up their sleeves. But I do have four decades of experience with a lot of different cameras and I do recognise that the basic design of the SLR is not the final word.


The SLR was and is a brilliant concept. It’s one of the outstanding design and engineering achievements of the 20th century. But in the 21st century, is there a way to keep the best features of the SLR while shedding some of its limitations?

I think there is and I think there are some cameras around right now which at least begin to point the way. But I also think that the industry may be heading up one or two blind alleys, or short-term detours, in swapping the inherent limitations of the SLR design for the equally inescapable limitations of screen-only viewing.

I’ve no problem at all with the basic concept of the mirrorless camera. The mirror is arguably the fundamental weakness of the SLR design. First, the mirror box creates a large void at the heart of the camera, inevitably increasing bulk, especially the depth of the camera (just compare even the most compact SLRs with, say, a Panasonic Lumix G10). This creates a few problems for lens designers.

The reflex mirror has other issues. However well-damped, it’s noisy and creates vibrations. The need for the mirror to flip up and down for each shot must limit shooting speed (it’s impressive that the best SLRs can shoot as fast as they do; the Nikon D3s can shoot full-frame images at 9 frames per second). And we’ve already mentioned that it creates an inherent risk of inaccuracy in the focusing system.

However.

I’ve tried large-sensor compacts like Sigma’s DP2, and I’ve had brief hands-on sessions with new-generation mirrorless system cameras like the Sony NEX-5. And though these encounters have been brief compared to my experience of SLRs, they’ve been enough to strengthen me in one conviction:

Eye-level viewing is better.


Put it another way: I would never want to be reliant on a camera with screen-only viewing. There are several handling issues which, as far as I can see, are fundamental to the use of the screen and can’t be overcome by technology. Handling is more awkward whatever lens you use, and this goes from being a minor issue with wide-angle lenses to being virtually impossible with serious telephoto glass.

So, while there is a place for cameras like the Sony NEX-5 – and it’s great to see more of a focus on sensor size than on megapixel numbers – they will never replace cameras with eye-level viewing for serious users who want intuitive handling with a wide range of lenses. Which is why I feel that, for the long-term future of system cameras, screen-only viewing is a dead-end. In my more provocative moods I’d even say it was a dead-end for all cameras.

But if eye-level viewing is essential, where does that leave us? I’ve used cameras with 35mm-compact-style direct-vision viewfinders, like the rather lovely Mamiya 7 which I had for several years. Shooting with the 43mm wide-angle lens required a separate viewfinder which slotted in to the camera’s hot-shoe for framing the shot – BUT if I needed to focus precisely (rather than relying on the distance scale plus depth of field) I still had to use the camera’s main viewfinder. Great camera for landscapes, not so good for anything else. Don’t want to go back there!

What we want is eye-level viewing with 100% frame coverage, no noisy mirror, no concerns about focusing accuracy – and that SLR sense of being directly connected to what’s in front of the lens. And I don’t think we’re all that far off.

Obviously this wish-list means we’ll need some sort of electronic viewfinder; these used to be awful but they keep getting better. All the required technology probably already exists but hasn’t yet made it to market in a single camera, at least in a totally convincing form. But there are a couple of cameras out there right now which may point the way.

One is Fujifilm’s Finepix X100. I had a brief play with this; it's a thing of beauty, and I was very impressed with the quality of its ‘hybrid’ viewfinder. What hybrid means is that it’s switchable from direct-vision to electronic viewing, both clear and bright. Even in direct-vision mode you have access to a lot of useful ‘heads-up’ displays. However, it’s not a camera I’ll be buying. At nearly a grand for a fixed-lens camera it’s far from affordable – even if I hadn’t read some serious criticisms of some of its functionality on the dpreview site. Nevertheless, it’s one of the best electronic viewfinders I’ve seen – though no doubt that’s helped considerably by looking through an f/2 lens! The EVF is now very close to being as good as a top-notch reflex finder in nearly all conditions.

The other ‘interesting’ camera, or rather cameras, is Sony’s SLT series. Again I’ve only had brief hands-on contact with the SLT-A55, but I found a lot to like about it. Although it looks a lot like a conventional SLR, and has the excellent handling qualities that go with it, it is different. The mirror is translucent, reflecting about 30% of light up to a focusing sensor in the base of the pentaprism, where normal SLRs have them. The remaining 70% of light goes straight on through to the image sensor, which provides a Live View feed either to the rear screen or to a very crisp and clear EVF, which is what enables it to handle like a standard SLR.

The mirror doesn’t move at all in normal shooting (though it can be raised to allow cleaning of the low-pass filter). This makes the camera quieter and less subject to vibration. It also means there’s no interruption in focusing; the focus sensor is operational the whole time. This gives the camera a real advantage for tracking moving subjects.

Although the A-55 doesn't have the build quality or some of the other features you’d expect in a pro camera (and Sony only brands it ‘intermediate’), it does shoot at an impressive 10fps – though not indefinitely, as writing data to the memory card becomes a bottleneck. This speed and full-time focus tracking has prompted a few professional sports photographers to switch to Sony.

Again, it’s not a camera that I’ll be buying. I haven’t been overly impressed with the build quality or the firmware (menus and control interface) of other Sony DSLRs I’ve used, and as I don’t shoot superfast action all that often its particular advantages don’t come close to a compelling reason to ditch my Nikon cameras and lenses. But I do think anyone currently in the market for a system camera and not constrained by existing investment in lenses and accessories should take a long look at the SLT models.

More importantly, I think this is a real signpost to the future, showing one possible way to retain the essential (for me) eye-level viewing while still exploiting the undeniable benefits of Live View. And this is really only Sony’s first attempt at this type of camera. The next generation of SLTs may be very interesting indeed. It’s a challenge that Nikon and Canon are going to have to meet, and I hope they do so soon.

 

Comments

No comments posted.
Loading...
Subscribe
RSS
Archive
January February (2) March (4) April May (3) June July (1) August (1) September October (1) November (3) December
January February March April (1) May (2) June (2) July August September (1) October (1) November (3) December
January (3) February March April May June July (1) August September October (1) November (1) December (1)
January February (2) March (1) April (1) May June July August September (1) October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December