Why Are Digital Cameras Still Boring?

In the matter of technological advancement, we are as a species, mostly insatiable. The latest toy, the fastest silicon, the largest storage, the list goes on. Take digital cameras as an example, what was your first one? Mine was a Casio QV200 in about 1997, I still have it somewhere though I can’t immediately lay my hands on it, and it could hold a what was for its time a whopping 64 VGA-resolution pictures in its 4Mb of onboard memory.

The QV200 showing off its VGA capabilities. It's March 1998, and this is a brand-new PlayStation that I'm about to install a mod chip inside.
The QV200 showing off its VGA photography capabilities. It’s March 1998, and this is a brand-new PlayStation that I’m about to install a mod chip inside.

It’s a shock to realise that nearly a quarter century has passed since then, and its fixed-focus 640×480 camera module with a UV-sensitive CMOS sensor that gave everything a slight blue tint would not even grace the cheapest of feature phones in 2020. Every aspect of a digital camera has improved beyond measure since the first models in the 1980s and early 1990s that started to resemble what we’d know today as a standalone digital camera, they have near-limitless storage, excellent lenses, huge and faithfully-reproducing sensors, and broadcast-quality video capability.

But how playful have camera manufacturers been with the form factor? We see reporters in sci-fi movies toting cameras that look nothing like their film-based ancestors. What do our real-life digital cameras have on offer as far as creative body design goes?

When Photographic Companies Didn’t Drive The Digital Camera Market

Every aspect of a digital camera has improved, that is, except one. When mass-market digital cameras came out, their designers experimented with the form factor of a camera. The Casio was an example, instead of being a brick with a lens sticking out of its middle it put the camera in a rotating turret on one of its ends. For the first time it was possible to take a picture from an angle other than with your face up to the viewfinder.

The Ricoh RDC-i700 from 2000, one of a line of cameras with a distinctive form factor from the company. Morio / CC BY-SA 3.0
The Ricoh RDC-i700 from 2000, one of a line of cameras with a distinctive form factor from the company. Morio / CC BY-SA 3.0

Other manufacturers took similar departures from the norm, just to note a few examples Apple’s 1994 QuickTake 100 had a form factor about the size of a paperback book with lens and viewfinder at opposite ends, Nikon’s 1996 Coolpix 100 had a vertical form factor that concealed a PCMCIA card for retrieving photos, and a series of Ricoh cameras through the ’90s had a candy-bar format reminiscent of 110 cartridge film cameras but with a flip-up LCD on top.

Product designers were given free reign to reinvent the camera after it had remained essentially unchanged for decades since the widespread adoption of 35mm film, and the result was an explosion of interesting new devices. Some of them were maybe a little avant garde, but among them were a few that genuinely did make the job of taking a photograph that little bit easier.

By the 2000s this era of creativity stuttered to a halt, and digital cameras retreated to being updated facsimiles of their 35mm ancestors, but with LCD screens. Compact cameras lost their viewfinders and were a bit slimmer than their film ancestors, an entirely new genre of not-quite-an-SLR bridge camera appeared that yet again looked as though it might have a 35mm canister somewhere, and DSLRs were replicas of their film predecessors, but bulging and overweight as if on steroids and festooned with buttons. Now compact cameras are all but dead in the face of mobile phones, and bridge cameras have given way to mirrorless cameras that look for all the world like a 35mm rangefinder. Dare I say it, cameras are a little bit boring.

Your Parents Didn’t Want Anything Exciting

Even Sega tried their hand at digital cameras, with the 1996 Digio SJ-1. Morio / CC BY-SA 3.0
Even Sega tried their hand at digital cameras, with the 1996 Digio SJ-1. Morio / CC BY-SA 3.0

So, what went wrong? The answer lies with who was making cameras in the 1990s, and who was buying them. On the whole your parents didn’t have a digital camera, instead they were the preserve of the early adopter. Probably quite a few of you who went on to become Hackaday readers, in fact. And the other side of the coin was that they were being manufactured by electronics companies rather than the photographic brands from whom we might have traditionally bought a camera. Companies who brought the product design experience of making computer peripherals to the table rather than the entrenched idea of how a camera should look.

Customers like us wanted something visibly high-tech and manufacturers were ready to break the mould. It was the perfect recipe for some exciting products. By comparison in the 2000s, your parents bought their first digital camera, and they probably did it from a brand they trusted because they already owned a film camera with the same logo. Their innate conservatism brought to the fore the replicas of 35mm form factors as something safe, and as a result here we are in 2020 when my camera looks like one made in the 1950s.

Ricoh Theta V 360 degree camera (front and back)

All is not lost however. Digital cameras replaced flat, rectangular images made from film with flat, rectangular images made from a digital sensor. But a new generation of cameras is exploring past that paradigm. Here you can see the form factor for a 360 degree camera that stitches together the captured image from two different hemispheric lenses. And all signs point to 3D cameras peeking over the horizon. Surely these form factors will be used to echo how much their features stand apart from what came before, following in the footsteps of action cameras that set them selves apart by flaunting their robust, almost indestructible nature.

And for those with a personal interest in pushing the boundaries of camera form factors, it’s a great time to be a hardware hacker. Affordable components are available to enable the construction of almost anything. Given a camera module and a small computer we can step in and produce the camera we want, rather than the one our parents want. I put this to the test, picking up a Raspberry Pi HQ camera module, and a C-mount lens. It may not be the match of a truly high-end model, but it’s a decent enough combination that opens up limitless possibilities for the experimenter.

The Future Of Camera Form Factors In Your Hands

My pistol grip camera. Needs a bit of tweaking maybe, but breaking the 35mm-inspired form factor.
My pistol grip camera. Needs a bit of tweaking maybe, but breaking the 35mm-inspired form factor.

In a way the form factor I arrived at is a bit conservative, being a pistol grip design with a nod towards 8mm cine cameras and more recently the FLIR thermal cameras. But it’s an illustrative piece to demonstrate the ease of creating a usable camera with these components.

Some work in OpenSCAD produced a simple triangular chassis with a front mounting for the camera module and a sloping face to which a Raspberry Pi case with display can be attached using Velcro strips. There are tapered locating points for a handle on both sides and the bottom to which handles or other mountings can be attached. The pistol grip is probably oversized as it’s designed to hold two 18650 cells in holders, but it could easily be replaced by a side grip, a GoPro-style accessory clip, or anything else that the imagination could come up with. Find all the files in my GitHub repository. On the software side, given time I could surely come up with a beautiful interface, but for now I’m running [silvanmelchior]’s web interface which I can load in a very slow web browser on an original single-core Pi model B+. In time I’ll look at ways to achieve a working preview without the Raspbian X bloat (If anyone can help me get the framebuffer version of Netsurf to compile and run instead of falling over on a Model B+, I’d be much obliged!), but for now the hardware has been the driving force.

This isn't a review of the Pi HQ camera, but here's a sample picture from my pistol grip camera.
This isn’t a review of the Pi HQ camera, but here’s a sample picture from my pistol grip camera.

In use, it’s an unexpected return to a bygone era of completely manual cameras. Even my old 1980s 35mm SLR had automatic light metering and a prismatic focusing aid, by contrast this is photography entirely by the seat of one’s pants for someone used to an autofocusing mirrorless camera. But a little more work on the aperture and focus is soon a part of the flow, and I can take decent quality photographs with it. The final result is definitely on the functional side, but I like to think I’ve avoided producing the Homer of cameras.

The days of delightfully wacky digital camera form factors may now be far behind us then, but I hope I’ve shown that even if the camera manufacturers no longer have the courage to break any moulds then the hacker community can still have fun in this arena. We’ve finally reached the point of having affordable high-quality camera components at our disposal, so it’s time to get creative. How are you going to re-interpret the camera, please share it with us!

102 thoughts on “Why Are Digital Cameras Still Boring?

  1. I love that form factor, since it’s ambidextrous – a plus as a lefty. Sadly, I can’t use anything that would possibly maybe resemble a gun in the USA…because. (Bright coloring could probably mitigate that enough).

    Is there anything that actually approaches a DSLR that’s truly open-source, from hardware to firmware, yet?

    1. “Is there anything that actually approaches a DSLR that’s truly open-source, from hardware to firmware, yet?”

      Nope. Not even close to that.

      But there are freely available to the public camera modules that you can use with open source firmware. You still need the branded black-box sensor. But the ones you can buy directly are getting better and better! For example, the Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera gives 12.3MP with a 7.9mm diagonal image size.

    2. Nope, not even close.

      I’m sure you can build interesting things with off the shelf camera components, but those are severely lacking in features compared to actual “photographer” cameras. They mostly eliminate the need, even the possibility of finely controlling the several parameters that a “real” camera allows.

      The closest you’d come to a ‘roll your own’ would be to use something like CHDK ( https://chdk.fandom.com/wiki/CHDK ) which builds on Canon camera firmware and exposes all sorts of functionality that can be customized, scripted, etc. It’s even possible to use it to integrate the camera into a system of other components with some models. The package comes with examples for everything from time-lapse, to motion-sensing to stereo setups, bullet-time and 360 setups, etc.

  2. “Customers like us wanted something visibly high-tech and manufacturers were ready to break the mould.”

    I’m a bit confused here. Do you think there are no longer people who want cameras that look like standard cameras? Or do you think that no one 30 years ago wanted the crazy sci-fi looking camera? I assume you neither of these statements are true and while you may believe that the ratio is flipping I see little evidence of this. I’ve seen almost no high end photography being taken by oddball cameras in fact with the advent of smartphones all I see is really high end expensive name brand cameras or phones, there is no cheap sony alternative (well there may be but I certainly don’t see adopters of them).

    You point to the 360degree camera but this is an exception not the rule just as the Ricoh RDC was in 2000. Sure there are people interested in taking 360 photography but the majority are still grabbing the same old design. Sometimes conservatism is not out of hating all things new but just out of having a solid design that does what the customer wants and doing it well.

    If there really was a huge market desperately wanting oddball designed cameras I assure you one of the big names would be taking a stab at it. The old phrase, if there’s money to be had.

    1. In the 1990s the digital camera market was very small and dominated by early adopters who wanted stuff that looked new and different.

      Now it’s a lot more mature, and the early adopters are no longer buying a digital camera to have something new.

      1. that turns out not to be the case – I had quite a few digital cameras in the 90’s and wanted all of them to be the same as my film cameras instead of their stupid shapes…

        The people buying digital cameras then were most likely already photo enthusiasts, and the ergonomics of the film cameras was way superior to some of the shapes that were sold (ie I have a agfa 1280 still in the camera box, and it was a pain to use).

        And for many years we (keen photo takers) had to use digital and film – digital only got good enough to replace film for home photos in the late 2000’s – and was many times the (upfront) price for the same results.

      2. This is so true!

        Photographers in the 90s were looking at these digital cameras, saying, “ooh, interesting, but low res.” And then going back to dreaming over a new high res negative scanner. Because you can use the negative scanner for photography. Digital cameras were not useful for photography, and most people didn’t use the internet yet. And also, scanners were really common then; standard equipment. People use their cell phones in place of scanners for most simple use cases these days. But you could easily scan a photo back then, and get a result way better than the best digital camera.

  3. it all has to do with ergonomics. don’t forget that photography evolved much earlier than 1995. I have quite a few weird film camera’s as well. take for example the samurai. half frame film and you hold it like a camcorder. didn’t catch on. the canon dial 35: spring loaded motor winder camera with automatic iris and 4 shutter speeds. very compact form. didn’t catch on. the Kodak Disc cameras. very flat and fitted in your pocket. didn’t catch on.

    I could go on for a while and you probably saw quite a few weird camera’s in out collection at hack42. the fact is, camera’s need a certain form of ergonomics and being stable during the moment you take a shot is premium. holding a camera in two hands greatly improves stability: one hand under the lens, one on the body under a right angel.

    when very small camcorders were en vogue in the early 2000’s I glued a camera mount to a smooth block of granite to aid in stability, as a one hand camera shakes all the time.

    Oh. BTW, black magic makes some nice camera’s not following convetions

    1. Half frame cameras never were a big success. It took until the 1990s that you could get practically grain-free film. With the very high quality film of today, you can blow up the pictures taken with 100 iso film to a4 size without noticable grain. If you like grain, shoot on cheap 400 iso film and enjoy the coarse structure.

      I own a Dial 35, and it’s a surprisingly high quality thing. The lens is good, and the case sturdy. The winding mechanism also works nicely.
      But the ergonomics are very awkward. I’m often fumbling around with it, trying to get a good grip. The ergonomics are no reason for it not to succeed though – various other manufacturers made good quality half frame cameras.

    2. The Kodak Disc cameras took truly awful photos. I say this from first-hand experience. And only 15 frames per really-expensive disc, and a bunch of other drawbacks. But it did have an interesting form factor, so there you go.

      1. They got used in a lot of burglar alarms – they were easy to control electronically. Or at least some model of it was. I think I remember three wires – short #1 to #2 to turn it on, then the pair of those to #3 to take a frame.

        1. I had a knock-off disc camera when I was a kid that was completely mechanical. Didn’t even have a flash, though it had a simple hot shoe that supported a self-contained flash.

          That darn thing took the worst pictures I’ve ever seen from a film camera!

      2. The Disc camera film cartridge looks like it’d have the best prospects for a drop in digital version. The film frame size is tiny, like many digital image sensors, so it could do fine without any additional optics. With current technology it looks like there’d be plenty of room for the electronics, a decent LiPo battery and a Micro SD slot.

  4. All of the digital cameras in this article are very poor. Every one of them shoots only distorted pictures. The images are squashed flat like a sheet of paper. Instead they should be designed to shoot images in stereoscopic 3-D, which is normal vision. Very few digital cameras are capable of the direct shooting of 3-D of moving subjects without lateral shifting of the camera or the subjects. The Fuji W3, no longer made, had this capability. But, it hardly was at a quality level that it should have been. People should be educated in the advantages of high quality digital cameras that normally shoot in stereoscopic 3-D, which is the only way that pictures should be made. Then they will begin to demand that manufacturers design and build all of their cameras that way.

    1. Stereoscopic 3D is not normal vision, it lacks accommodation cues and motion parallax and provokes a vergence-accomodation conflict when viewed on a stereoscopic display. Normal vision would be with holograms, but they’ve limited depth or with a light field camera but there is nothing to display them in all their glory. You can do it in a VR headset with the Welcome to Light Fields application, but you’re still limited by the stereoscopic display.

    1. I don’t think that will ever be properly true – at least while the trend for stupidly thin phones continues.

      To actually capture a really good or artistic image you need proper lenses – phones try to cheat this with huge pixel counts and multiple cameras and lots of post-processing. But that can’t ever be perfect as none of the cameras will ever have been properly focused etc – can lead to some fun aberrations when elements are put in the wrong places when the post processing puts elements captured by one camera best in the wrong place because it doesn’t actually know the depth so is guessing at the parallax level experienced…

      The form factor also counts against them – they are damn nearly impossible hold and take photos properly being not at all ergonomic for that task.

      That said they are great multi-purpose tools that can take surprising good images under fairly common conditions, so I know I no longer carry small digital camera around (even if they have decent optical zooms and other features not found on a phone) as the pocket digital camera doesn’t have enough quality improvement in general to be worth the effort. I do however take my DSLR if I expect/intend to take photo, even though its old and has much lower pixel count than my phone. As it is comfortable to hold, easy to play with focus on, fits standard tripod mounts, works well in any light level and with the many lens options can get super pictures of details at all ranges (though i could use a new lens for both extremes or range and would like to upgrade to a newer ‘full frame’ sensor someday).

      1. Unfortunately, it is well under way. Olympus just left the market, and look at the rate at which new camera models are being released compared to 5 or 10 years ago. Neither Point-and-shoots nor DSLRs are a growth market anymore.

        1. Doesn’t need to be a growing market – Infact no market should be growing indefinitely as there is no way that can be sustainable!

          Doesn’t mean its going away either though, I don’t think you will ever get your professional grapher to use a phone or other multitool – the dedicated tool is (or at least should be) far easier to use and have better features and controls.

          You need finer control, decent lens options and large sensors for decent photo’s in many situations so all of those will remain niche markets. All the phones are doing to the market is making it shrink by removing most of the casual photographers that just wanted some half decent shots of their holiday etc.

          Historically many of those new camera models are basicly the same camera as the old one but rebadged with perhaps a smaller shell, SD card rather than CF card, new fps settings for video etc. Actual major updates to sensor and optic packages are fairly rare so seeing less new models now isn’t really a bad thing if it means that each time a new model comes out its actually new and better all round – as that will mean everyone wants to upgrade which will work out well for the companies doing it. Also works for them on another level as its cheaper to refurbish and maintain only one or two models (something all the pro sort of level cameras say you should send off to have done frequently).

          1. You should actually look for reports from camera and lens manufacturers. Especially since your argument is “well, they weren’t doing much anyway”. The forecasts are collectively pretty gloomy, and a shrinking market isn’t good for consumer choice. There’s a reason that Olympus gave up, and it’s not only their own bad decisions.

            Shrinking markets push individual vendors out. It doesn’t cause everyone to shrink symmetrically.

            You and I may be happy with a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, but the market for point-and-shoots – the bread and butter that allow the companies to spend money on R&D at all tiers – is not looking healthy. So when you say “maybe they’ll give us a more comprehensive refresh if they aren’t making enough sales to justify a smaller refresh” – I can’t imagine why you would think that would follow. Where would the money come from to design a more comprehensive update?

            At best, it looks like there will be a tiny niche upscale market for very expensive cameras and expensive lenses, and they’ll be even more expensive because they won’t be able to use any parts with many down-market cameras and won’t have any economies of scale. This is not a future with usefully pocketable cameras … unless they’re also a phone.

          2. Never said pocket camera’s had a future. Infact I’ve said myself I don’t bother with one anymore I take the DSLR when I intend to take photos.

            Never said it would be good for us if there is less competition.
            Only said that there is a demand that can only be met by proper tools so the real dedicated DSLR type camera isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It might get much more expensive to buy into (which will hurt) and the companies working on them will have to shift the working practice that no longer work now the world has moved on.

            But I’m hopeful that once the industry sorts itself out it will be stable, maybe even find a new growth niche – perhaps into the ruggidised action camera or space hardware both of which look like growth areas which would benefit from similar R&D to the pro/semi-pro camera market. Security camera are also starting to improve and with all the content creators for Youtube and the like demand for quality video capable isn’t going anywhere either – and name a DSLR that isn’t one of the best options for video.

          3. I’m glad I went with Pentax, then; Ricoh isn’t the biggest, but their primary business seems to be in OEM printer and machine optics, rather than the cameras. Being a long-established business, they don’t need to stick to growth markets.

            Maybe that is why they still always have lots of new camera models, with new features?

            When the market eventually matures enough that there really are less new models, then it will become way more likely that we’ll start getting easy access to the highest quality sensors on a retail OEM basis. That will be sad for some of the companies that were very camera-focused, but it will be wonderful for photographers and the smaller companies already making 3rd party accessories.

      2. Older cameras that were crazy expensive when new often take better photos than many new cameras. How? Because despite having lower maximum resolution they have CCD sensors instead of CMOS, and they have much larger lenses, made of glass, from companies like Zeiss. These were $400~$500 cameras, taking pictures around 2 megapixels. At their highest resolution and quality settings they couldn’t put many pictures on the 1 or 2 gig maximum storage media they support. Or smaller! I have an old Sony that tops out at 128 megabyte Memory Stick and a Sony CD Mavica that uses ~256 megabyte 3″ CD-RW. I also have a camera that uses XD Picture card. Officially tops out at 2 gig but 8 gig works, just takes longer to boot up. All three take great photos and the flash on the CD Mavica can make a lightless room look like it’s a sunny day.

        With photos from those cameras one can zoom all the way in to nice, sharp, square pixels.

        Photos taken with a CMOS sensor are *blurry*. It doesn’t matter how many megapixels the image is, when you zoom way in you get *fuzz*. It’s like a built in blur filter. Take a large enough image and it will look decent, but that low level fuzz works against you when doing image editing.

        1. Blur has nothing to do with CMOS technology. Almost all color sensors using a Bayer matrix add a blurring filter to prevent false colors and other aliasing artifacts.
          Aftermarket lens makers Tamron and Sigma are now making lenses with optics as good as Canon, Nikon, Sony, and yes, even Zeiss. Quite often, the lenses have better resolution than the sensors.
          See the blog at lensrentals.com for the best available published lens tests.

        2. I’m not sure I agree with you on CMOS, though I do on megapixels not equalling quality. One of the best all-round cameras I’ve had used a CMOS sensor and it was in a surprising place. My first camera phone was a Nokia N73, which had a 3 megapixel camera. Where it scored was that in common with a load of other Nokias of the day it had a miniaturised Carl Zeiss Tessar lens. It could do macro, and its autofocus was very good indeed. Some of the best photos I’ve ever taken were on that phone, and I always wished I’d been able to score a Pureview 808 with the very high res version of the camera. It was thicker than modern phones, but I’d gladly have a thick phone again if it had that lens in its camera.

          1. Indeed the tech can make a difference but neither is inherently worse overall. Its the execution around the method that matters most.

            And I agree, stupidly thin astetics are horrible to use and make the cameras horrible – might get good images under the right situation but most of the quality comes from throwing post-processing at it!

          2. While some of my older phones had cameras, the first acceptable one I had was on the 3.5G version of the Nokia N95. Not only was it a tough phone but for something that was small, it took a pretty good shot. Sure, low light left a lot to be desired, but having a thicker body and a physical 2 stage shutter button made it pretty easy to use. In fact it rivaled my fathers Sony Handycam at a pub concert one night. The last Nokia I owned was the Lumia 1020. It was a great camera phone with a 41MP BSI OIS sensor and was still chunky enough to be able to hold without getting RSI in your wrists and hands. It’s images were beautiful and the grip case that had a booster battery, shutter button and tripod mount made it even easier to hold. Alas, it was held back by only having a dual core processor, 2 GB of RAM, no expandable memory (the RAW photos are huge) and the fact it was a Windows phone. When I jumped to a Samsung S7, yeah, I noticed the natural improvements in phone camera tech but the ergonomics of such a thin phone make it harder to use. You will naturally shake the phone when you tap the screen, ever so slightly shifting the focus or even taking a shot that you don’t want. And while my Note 10+ 5G is even better than the S7, I still long for the dedicated 2 stage shutter button on my N95 and 1020. If I need to take a quick shot to keep a memory, I’m still gonna grab my phone. But if I need to do anything else, if it’s a vlog, an event (party, wedding, etc) or even doing micro soldering, I’m grabbing my Mirrorless or DSLR. A proper lens and physically larger sensor is so superior to a tiny phone camera simply due to the laws of physics. And even though people complained about the 158g of the Lumia 1020 being too heavy, extra weight in a camera helps dampen the shakes.

      3. How about a phone/case with decent ergonomics? Somewhere to grab. A frigging physical button (volume button isn’t in a good spot). A lip around the camera so I stop putting my finger over it.

    2. Of the *consumer* digital camera, absolutely. There’s still a big market for professional and semi-professional large-sensor cameras; TV and cinema will always use them.

  5. Rather than something far out with some strange shape I would rather one that fits in my pocket easily. It should be usable by itself. But it should have some sort of standardized socket on it where a nice big lens can be clipped or screwed on for when I have a more demanding picture to take.

    So just a slab with threads for a lens.

    And.. since I already carry a slab which is my phone it might as well be part of that. Which is why any other camera I could own would be unlikely to see much use.

    What would some futuristic looking space toy camera end up being good for? Probably sitting in some corner of my office collecting dust and taking up way too much space because strange shapes stack poorly.

    1. You make a good point make a properly useful camera in a phone – I can even see it being possible with the new pi camera to do just that. Make a phone with enough bulk at one end to hide the lens cap area (though that is actually hard to do if you really want everything you expect of a phone from a computer). I can see the shape being cross-sectioned like a very thin sector of a circle – the camera mounted at 30 odd degrees to the screen face in the bulbous section probably with a trigger or two for zoom and shutter below it. So you hold it a bit like a trek phasor – can use the touchscreen for much of the setting up and have a shutter button and zoom in/out and perhaps focus adjust for the index and middle fingers. (I am aware you need to figure out how to powered focus and zoom for lens on the pi board as most if not all for that mount are dumb lens – not that I am bothered by manually doing it myself)

      Its not like the phone being a few cm thick at one end actually makes much difference to pocketing it – it would still be thinner or at least comparable to the old Nokia bricks and early flip phones for example.

    2. That’s, for sure, part of why the camera bodies haven’t changed much. Take any Canon DSLR body that has swappable lenses, and you can put any Canon lens on it. Take one from the 1970s (maybe earlier) and it will still fit the new DSLR bodies. If your target is high-end photographers who have already invested thousands (if not tens- and hundreds-) then you want something that is familiar and compatible with everything they already have.

        1. I almost broke my Pentax DSLR when I attached an old SLR lens to it. It fit, locked, but almost damaged a part in the camera body that gets moved by the lens. (aperature, focus? I dunno) luckily I was able to remove it (it was a bit tight).
          I may have been trying to put a “orange dot” lens into a “red dot” mount.

      1. Not only are Canon FD series lenses incompatible with the newer EF lensed bodies, even with an adapter they won’t infinity focus. Technology has improved greatly; improved glasses and nano-coatings make possible quality unavailable at any price 30 years ago, unless the Hubble telescope is included.

    3. I’d go the other way; give me a camera with a regular SLR form factor, but put an OK phone in it.

      I carry the phone for emergencies, and even if I need to read a PDF or something, I’m sitting down.

      1. That’s one reason for disabling *removable* filters on consumer cameras, but it’s not the reason they’re there in the first place. Colour camera sensors emulate the human eye’s frequency response, but they don’t do so perfectly. Infrared light is invisible to us but visible to the camera sensor, which results in photos with incorrect colours.

        The IR-cut filter is there so that a photo’s colours match what we expect when we look at the original scene.

      2. Rubbish. Early phones could be used to check if an IR remote worked. (Now they have IR filters, to improve colour rendition)

        DSLRs can be adapted to IR or UV. Switchable filters aren’t great as they’ll affect image quality. Picking up IR to UV would require a 5-colour sensor, which is going to be too exotic to ever see common use.

        1. My Motorola I bought this year can still see the IR LED on the remote just fine.

          I sometimes use it to test my DIY camera remote. :) (typically, when I changed a setting that disables the remote feature…)

  6. I think of the cameras used in a scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” they looked like pistols.
    A rodeo photographer in the 1940’s – 1950’s had his camera mounted on a rifle stock.
    And then there was that diplomat who was assassinated by a gun hidden in a camera…
    Those give a different meaning to “point and shoot” cameras.

    1. I thought that was a movie camera in “2001” . That Apple 100 camera, I have one found at a garage sale, seemed shaped like a movie camera.

      This article talks about lack of variety, but what’s wrong with the traditional shape of cameras? I can see some niche uses requiring a different form, but generally I don’t find a problem with it.

  7. The ageism on display here is more than a bit unpleasant. At exactly what age will I be precluded from being a Hackaday reader? Should I risk sharing this with older friends or family members? (Maybe they’ll just assume the author’s referring to my grandparents or great grandparents.)

    1. Saying that some people who bought 1990s cameras went on to become Hackaday readers in no way precludes those who weren’t around in the ’90s from also being Hackaday readers.

      It’s difficult to write a piece about ’90s tech without bringing ’90s people into it, after all.

      1. The assumption that “[The reader’s] PARENTS DIDN’T WANT ANYTHING EXCITING […] [the reader’s] parents didn’t have a digital camera, instead they were the preserve of the early adopter […] in the 2000s, [the reader’s] parents bought their first digital camera”.

        I feel a real assumption on the part of the author when I read this that makes it feel like the audience is a specific age group. One feeling is, “what matters about purchases made in the ’90s and ’00s is what the reader’s parents did”. The implication is that the reader was not an adult (nor even a parent *themselves*?) in those times.

        Other offensive implications are that the reader’s parents didn’t want anything exciting, and that the reader’s parents could not possibly have been early adopters.

        One hopes this site has readers whose parents were born anywhere from 1920 to around 1988. I know people across the age spectrum who were fascinated with digital photography when it was new, and some who still eschew it today.

        I’m sure you meant no offense, and I see how it’s mostly a rhetorical flourish, but it does read as offensive, at least to this reader. Authors can’t be expected to be omniscient and spot everything offensive up front, but I hope this site welcomes feedback about this sort of thing and can try to do better in the future.

    2. When you’re old enough to ask this question, you’ll be old enough to notice that the whippersnappers stopped accepting your social contributions decades ago, and are just humoring you.

      It doesn’t mean you were excluded from anything. Just as when you were young, the focus was on people a little older than you, as you get older, the focus stays on that age group, and eventually it is on people younger than you.

      If you want to be included in the conversation, it is easy: Make up additional words that include you, and shout them whenever you feel excluded. If anybody complains, just tell them: “When you’re my age, you’ll know if the clouds are listening or not!” They’ll likely leave you be.

    1. It may be that the abbreviations were not decided on early enough to be a real thing, and that you have to check which is meant every time, and that there isn’t even a technically-correct standard, but a standard that was partially adopted without consensus.

      When you read old documents and they seem to all get this “wrong,” it is because they’re not wrong at all, it was always imprecise.

      Also, you have to account for the fact that case sensitivity is not even universally available. Abbreviations will vary.

  8. The BMPCC has a huge Spartan part inside, can shoot RAW (!) and was released back in 2013. How is that boring? If only they open sourced some part of it so that we can fix its many issues…

  9. Form follows function. (Unless of course you are an Architect With Vision, in which case you design gorgeous but useless buildings with horrible HVAC)

    The 35mm camera format is the result of ~90+ years of design work and evolution. It has a lot going for it. Even some larger format (6×4.5 and 6×7) adopted the form factor. The release of the need for a viewfinder optically coupled to the lens/shutter mechanism is still relatively new to the concept.

    That being said, one of my favorite digital camera hacks has to be the combination of a flatbed scanner to the back of an 8×10 landscape format camera.

    Now if I can just afford a digital back for the 6×7….

    1. The 35mm camera is an artifact of 35mm film. The constraints are the size of the film can, the size of the takeup reel and the exposed surface, and the requirement for a viewfinder. It is big and bulky and there is nothing to be done about it. All of the stuff you mention is just attempts to mitigate the bulk, which is gone in a digital camera, It has as much going for it as the design for a Model T Ford or an oil lamp.

      1. For high quality telephoto or low-light images, big lenses are required. There is no way to get around that requirement, quality requires a large number of photons impinging on the lens and reaching the sensor. That in turn means there has to be a way to solidly and stably hold the lens-body combination. There is also the need to access controls. This means the body-lens combo must accommodate a two-hand grip with enough room to hold the camera without hitting the controls, and still have controls available with the twitch of a finger. The result is either a brick with one or two optional bulges for grips, or a wraparound camcorder-style body.

        Since the resolution of camera displays is still inferior to sensor resolution, the advantage of SLR design with its accompanying pentaprism is not to be ignored. Mirrorless cameras have their advantages, but the mirrored SLR is going to remain preferred for a while.

        Full-frame digital cameras require a lot of processing power and a large body also helps slow overheating, and gives room for controls, display, and electrical connectors.

        Olympus, among others, made some fairly compact 35 mm film cameras. Other manufacturers may not have packaged the complex mechanics of focal plane shutter, timing, and film advance as well.

  10. The DSLR’s form factor may ape a 35 mm camera, but it also wouldn’t look particularly odd if it had evolved on its own: A rectangular section holds the optical sensor, a display screen, and main PCB, an extension in front to hold a cylindrical lens, a thicker area at one side that serves as both a grip and a battery, a mount at the top for an offset optical viewfinder and flash shoe, and a hard point at the bottom for tripod mounting.

    Film cameras also existed in a huge array of form factors, but the SLR-type design won out as the choice of most serious photographers over other designs like the Kodak Brownie, the candy-bar 110s, or the fold-up Polaroids. This design had some restrictions for the 35 mm film canisters, but many of its form factor details where the result of winning out over many competing designs.

    1. specifically the grip is an artifact of 35mm film…you needed a place to store the film roll and batteries, which made a convenient place for the user to grip the camera. When transitioning to digital, it made a good place to put a large battery and you could use a proven ergonomic design. It however also automatically makes the camera non-ambidextrous.
      The gun-like design the article author displays is what a one branch of a pure digital evolution would probably look like. Everything is in a box (simple electronics layout + a good place for the screen) and the handle is ambidextrous.
      The modern smartphone is also a natural evolution, but the camera was not the main task of this device, hence it does not get that much priority when designing the form factor.

  11. I’ve recently been fascinated with these cheap Chinese IP cameras based on common cmos sensors and hi3516 chips with embedded Linux that can encode 2MP (1080p) 30fps into h.264 and stream it over WiFi in the power using about a watt. They’ve made some appearances in the hacker community as I’ve seen but not much, and new more power efficient hisilicon chips are available that could be a huge leap. There are brands on aliexpress that even sell base pcbs with the cmos, h.264 chip, headers for ethernet and whatnot, and an m12 lens mount… I’ve seen 1080p30fps capable ones at the ~$10, and then 4k for like ~$50, it’s pretty crazy. Only catch is the hisi datasheets and SDK are confidential (still available if you know where to look *cough* csdn), but there are a few GitHub projects under development aiming for universal open source software that can run on all these models, the most promising of which I’d say is using a fork of openWRT: search for “OpenHisiIpCam”

    1. ***h.264 AND h.265 depending on the hisilicon chip model (also hi3518) and then the several prefixes at the end denoting features (some have embedded RAM, some older ones only do h.264) and versions… But direct from China these bare chips are like $3 each… So I think there’s serious potential to turn one or two versions into generic modules for makers: basically imagine what the esp8266 did for plug and play wifi capability, but instead with a camera connector and it spits out configurable encoded h.265 that can work with a variety of common cmos sensors and resolutions, that would be pretty useful

  12. While I think very few of early digital designs are actually good, I totally agree that they got completely stuck, but photographers by nature are stuck to aesthetics and nowadays is even worse with the shrinking market and aging demographic, they play it extremely safe and rely heavily in nostalgia fuji is an entire brand based on that retro styling

  13. I’ve often thought I’d like a camera in a walking cane.
    With some form of spring activated charger, to help out the batteries.

    Other options would include IR LED’s to help in low light conditions, and a low power (Bluetooth?) video transmit. Still need some form of Google Glass to see where you are aiming the camera, of course.

    1. “Still need some form of Google Glass to see where you are aiming the camera, of course.”

      You also might get a better aesthetic if you use Google Cardboard, instead of Google Glass. But instead you could use a green spotting LED with a lens that has the same angle as the camera lens, and it blinks off when you’re taking a shot.
      Maybe photovoltaics along the sides, instead of a spring charger?

    2. I remember watching (decades ago) a documentary about cameras.
      One of the cameras they showed was a cane camera (circa late 1800s)
      The camera was built into the handle, with a button to activate the shutter.
      It carried a small roll of film, (IIRC, about 1/2 inch wide and about a foot long.
      The lens was fixed focus, about a 3/16 in diameter.

  14. I don’t really like viewfinders. I’m only an occasional amateur photographer and it’s just easier to see exactly what you’re going to get(Especially if you like shooting at night) while having more peripheral vision to pay attention to your subject IRL with your actual eyeballs.

    The traditional camera form factor has the LCD right behind the lens, where one might expect it to be if you’re looking through it, and everything else is built with that as a starting point.

    And of course, for casual vacation pictures rather than high-effort art, the form factor has changed, because phones have pretty much exclusive ownership of that market, and they do a good job of you don’t expect them to be DSLRs.

    1. Trying to focus a mirrorless camera at night when trying to photograph lightning is a pain due to the exposure times involved. With a DSLR you can still make out where your subject is.

  15. Maybe the reason they’re boring is due to economics: simpler design, less parts, cheaper and quicker to manufacture.

    BTW, the pistol grip design has a flaw– the battery compartment couldl hit the tripod’s legs when you try to tilt up beyond a certain angle.

    If I’d build a Pi-based camera, its form would be like a Handycam than a DSLR. One requirement would be a good 5″ screen with 1280 x 720 resolution for the viewfinder–more pixels would be better, but I’m sure the price of such a thing would be unreasonable.

  16. they are boring cause they went from super expensive useless toys to practically free novelties to totally free acceptable rivals within a couple decades when most people were not asking for them

  17. I think Jenny is missing many of the critical physical properties that lead to the standard SLR format.

    1) To get decent images you need a lot of glass, hence big lenses,

    2) Diffraction limits the achievable resolution, bigger lenses and apertures increase resolution and image quality, hence big lenses

    3) To have a decent dynamic range your pixels need to be a reasonable size so the full well capacity is large enough to give the required dynamic range.

    4) Big pixels mean that the sensor needs to be larger for the same resolution, leading to big lenses

    5) How do you support and point these big lenses? An SLR type format with a second hand under the lens is relatively stable and easy to move about.

  18. Current DSLR’s are shaped as such for ergonomic reasons. If you actually plan on holding it for a few hours out of the day (or more at major event) the last thing you want is some odd shaped thing.

    Go look up odd shaped film cameras… they had pistol grip film cameras. They had 1″ thick rectangles the size of a modern phone… they had 4-6″ boxes… the current shaped grew out of ergonomics. Same goes for digital… its about ergonomics and minimum volume needed for the required features.

    as a younger couple, the wife and I did a little photography with pocket point and shoot (pack of card sized) hated the quality. Stoped until we got a decent smart phone. But was still annoyed with image quality for low light and action pictures. (Great for landscape and some other stuff) we than started down the path of dslr…

    I now run a canon 1dx and half a dozen lenses…. but no one is a able to guess which of the 18×12″ prints on our wall were shot with a cellphone, canon 7d, 5d1, 5d2, 1dx. If they pixel peep they can spot the 35mm film enlargements.

    (some of the wildlife shots should be obviously not a cellphone, but with dorks who get in selfie range of wild Buffalo….)

  19. Mamiya RB67? I’ve got one, and I love it, but I can’t afford the prices Mamiya are charging for a digital back.

    If you want a digital back for many medium format cameras, try this – I haven’t got the URL, so search indiegogo or kickstarter for “I’m back – low cost medium format digital back”

    You get a digital sensor pack with touchscreen controls, a slot for an SD card, with an adapter for your camera model – Hasselblad, Bronica, Mamiya, etc

    Not shipping until december because of covid-19, but I’m going get one.

  20. Cell phone camera development has gone far beyond what the traditional camera manufacturers have done (or at least released in the form of products). I suspect that in the not too distant future, when lot of the traditional camera makers have bowed out of the consumer market, there will be cameras, not part of a phone, that use the same technology that is used in cell phone to make cameras with much higher performance at very low cost. There was an excellent series of articles at DPReview (get your mind out of the gutter- DP stands for Digital Photography) on the sorts of things that the cell phone companies are doing: https://www.dpreview.com/tag/computational-photography-trilogy-june2020?ref_=pe_1822230_503578300_dpr_nl_430_9

    I’ve seen some papers on holographic lenses that make me think that the days of glass optics are numbered.

  21. The first digital cameras I had regular access to belonged to my job at the time. A Kodak DC40, and subsequently, a Kodak DC120. These things were huge, ran on 4 AAs, and defaulted to a proprietary Kodak image format, using a very mac looking serial cable. The DC120 came with a 10MB Compact Flash card. Both only stored a handful of images at a time.

  22. The reason no one made anything different from a brick with a grip and a lens sticking out of is because it’s the best design. If you want to minimize weight and bulk at a given image quality, and allow replaceable lenses, you will have a brick with a lens sticking out of it.

    However, the beauty of this approach is that it is infinitely customizable. You want a pistol grip camera? The soviets made one. You can still use it today – buy a Sony a6000, buy the original, USSR-made Zenit 300mm f/4.5 lens buy and adapter, and everything should lineup. If you so which, you can even use a modern Sigma 100-400 f/5-6.3 lens, slightly modify the tripod collar to fit the Fotosnaiper, and bob’s your uncle.

    The issue with digital cameras isn’t that their designs are unimaginative. It’s that often their users are. The real innovation to be made isn’t in form factor – there’s only so much you can do. The real innovation is in the software and accessories. For example, you can buy an adapter that will drive a lens from 1919 in autofocus mode.

    But as far as it goes, trying to make a form factor that’s much different from sticking a Sigma fp into a rig will just end up with a huge compromise to image quality, or usability. Cameras, by and large, are very, very well designed.

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