How camera makers are getting their design groove on

A wave of experimentation is sweeping the camera industry as it grapples with the second phase of the digital revolution. Be careful: today's bold design could be tomorrow's evolutionary dead end.

Canon's EOS M uses a relatively large APS-C sensor like its bigger SLR brethren, but ditching the SLR mirror means the camera body is smaller.
Canon's EOS M uses a relatively large APS-C sensor like its bigger SLR brethren, but ditching the SLR mirror means the camera body is smaller. Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- A decade ago, a cataclysm rocked the photography business as digital image sensors replaced fim.

It turns out that was just the beginning.

At the Photokina show here, it was clear a second wave of change is sweeping through the industry. Cameras produced during the first digital photography revolution looked and worked very similarly to their film precursors, but now designers have begun liberating them from the old constraints.

Three big developments are pushing the changes: a new class of interchangeable-lens cameras, the arrival of smartphones with wireless networking, and the sudden enthusiasm for full-frame sensors for high-end customers.

Sure, plenty of things remain unchanged. A digital SLR looks the much the same as a film-era SLR, and it accommodates the same lenses. The rules of focal length, aperture, and shutter speed are still in effect.

But just about everything else is in play -- even the question of whether Canon's dominance will continue. Camera makers, no doubt educated by Kodak's disastrous inability to cope with the first digital revolution, are pulling out all the stops.

The result is a new phase of experimentation that's refreshing but risky. Photographers get a wealth of new choices, but they're betting on camera systems that might not survive as today's experimentation settles down into tomorrow's winners and losers.

Some camera makers essentially are trying to miniaturize SLR cameras. Others are trying are trying extra-large and even extra-extra-large sensors for better image quality. Lensmakers are branching out beyond supporting just Canon and Nikon. Precious battery life is being devoted to connecting cameras to Wi-Fi networks and to logging photo locations with GPS. Two storied camera brands, Leica and Hasselblad, are modifying otherwise utilitarian cameras into flamboyant designs with green leather and jewels.

Ecosystem wars
The biggest digital businesses these days involve ecosystems -- stacks of technology that can include processors, operating systems, app stores, online services, social graphs, and user accounts with accompanying credit card numbers. If you buy into an ecosystem at one point by, for example, purchasing an iPad, you end up buying into many of the other points as well.

Competitive dynamics mean that spanning ecosystems -- like using Google Maps on an iPhone 5 -- can be difficult or impossible. That lock-in is a great thing for a company trying to keep its customers loyal.

Cameras have long had an ecosystem element of their own: the proprietary lens mount used to attach lenses to camera bodies. Today's SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras continue with the same mounts introduced in the 35mm film era. Two companies, Canon and Nikon, overwhelmingly dominate the SLR market.

What's new now is that, as with personal computers and smartphones, the camera ecosystem is broadening.

There is an explosion of new lens mounts as camera makers venture beyond the traditional SLR design. New "mirrorless" cameras are spreading across the industry as camera makers try to marry the smaller sizes of compact cameras with the lens flexibility, image quality, and profit margins of SLRs.

The Olympus Pen E-PL5 is a new arrival in the Micro Four Thirds family that Olympus and Panasonic launched to start the "mirrorless" movement for compact digital cameras with interchangeable lenses.
The Olympus Pen E-PL5 is a new arrival in the Micro Four Thirds family that Olympus and Panasonic launched to start the "mirrorless" movement for compact digital cameras with interchangeable lenses. Stephen Shankland/CNET

It's not a coincidence that Nikon and Canon, with the most to lose from anything that eats into SLR sales, were the last to join the mirrorless party.

The mirrorless cameras leave out the reflex mirror of SLRs, which use it to bounce light into the viewfinder so a photographer can see through the camera's lens. When it's time to take a photo, the SLR mirror flips up out of the way, the shutter opens, the light hits the image sensor, then the mirror flips back down.

With mirrorless cameras, the light just goes straight to the image sensor all the time. If there's a viewfinder at all, it's an electronic display, often an optional accessory. The design is simpler, smaller, and all the rage in the industry. (Nobody really likes the term "mirrorless" since it seems an awful lot like defining an automobile as "horseless," but so far it seems the best option.)

Mirrorless ecosystems
The earliest mirrorless models came from Olympus and Panasonic, whose Micro Four Thirds partnership means lenses from one company can be used on cameras from the other. At Photokina, Olympus announced its new Pen E-PL5 and Panasonic its new Lumix GH3 cameras. That early advantage was on display as premium lensmaker Schneider Kreuznach announced its plans for Micro Four Thirds lenses .

But new mirrorless camera systems are sprouting like mushrooms after a rain:

• Sony's NEX line, whose E-mount will be supported by high-end camera maker Hasselblad starting in early 2013. The NEX sensors are the same "APS-C" size as those used in lower-end SLRs, 23.5x15.6mm, which means they can gather a lot more light than a point-and-shoot camera for better image quality. The sensors also are larger than those in Micro Four Thirds cameras, which measure 17.3x13mm.

• Canon's EOS M. The first Canon EOS M models , like Sony's, use an APS-C sensor (though actually the somewhat smaller Canon implementation, 22.3x14.9mm). People with existing Canon SLRs will be able to use their existing Canon lenses with an adapter, which is a big advantage given the size of Canon's SLR business, but the company is late to the mirrorless game.

This Pentax Q10 is dwarfed by the 560mm telephoto lens attached.
This Pentax Q10 is dwarfed by the 560mm telephoto lens attached. Stephen Shankland/CNET

• Fujifilm's Finepix X line. The company's earlier X-Pro1 has restored some of this camera maker's relevance, and this year at Photokina, Fujifilm repackaged the innards of the X-Pro1 in the more compact X-E1. It uses an APS-C sensor, too, but at $1,400 it's not cheap.

• Samsung's NX line. The Korean company was mostly quiet about this line at Photokina, but it did show off a new 12-24mm f4-5.6 lens and fast 45mm f1.8 lens to go along with models like its newest NX210 . Samsung's line, too, use an APS-C sensor.

• Pentax's Q line. Photokina marked the debut of the second camera in this series, the Q10. The Q family uses a much smaller, 1/2.3"-size sensor measuring about 4.6x6.2mm that's typically found in point-and-shoot cameras.

• The Nikon 1 line. At Photokina, this Japanese company announced the Nikon 1 J2 . Like its forebears, it's got a 13.2x8.8mm image sensor that's larger only than the Pentax Q line.

It's all very complicated, but it's a serious business. Sony bought its way into the SLR market by acquiring Konica-Minolta's camera business, but it had a hard time denting the Nikon/Canon dominance. However, with the NEX line steadily maturing and its range of lenses steadily expanding, Sony could use the mirrorless market as a way to carve out territory where its biggest rivals are weak.

Olympus, Samsung, and Panasonic see things similarly. Olympus' SLR business languishes while Samsung and Panasonic gave up their attempts to enter that market altogether. But all three are moving aggressively in the mirrorless market.

This Schneider Kreuznach prototype for a 60mm f2.4 macro lens shows the marriage of the mirroless world of Micro Four Thirds cameras with the world of premium German lenses.
This Schneider Kreuznach prototype for a 60mm f2.4 macro lens shows the marriage of the mirroless world of Micro Four Thirds cameras with the world of premium German lenses. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Everybody selling cameras covets the existing Nikon and Canon business for interchangeable SLR lenses. Not only are lenses a lucrative accessory, but once a customer buys more than two, it's often a prohibitive hassle to switch to another camera maker.

Camera makers are looking elsewhere for ecosystem opportunities, too. Canon, for example, unveiled "Project1709" at Photokina, a beta version of a Web site that lets people unify their photos from a wide range of sources -- cameras, smartphones, Facebook, and ultimately more.

"Our overall goal is to be able to bring all images together," said Rainer Fuehres, head of Canon Europe's Consumer Imaging Group. That's a land grab, an attempt to make Canon a participant in an activity where today generally its involvement ends once the photo leaves the camera.

The smartphone crisis
For ordinary people, the biggest change in photography is the arrival of smartphones with respectable if not stellar cameras. Early phone cameras suffered from dismal image quality and performance, but each passing year has shown improvements in resolution, low-light performance, lens quality, and speed. And as the smartphone market has expanded, more people get access to those capabilities.

Because people always carry their phones, those cameras are the ones increasingly used to document people's lives photographically. As the phones' cameras improve, there's less and less reason to carry a regular camera even for special occasions. And that's just the first reason camera makers need to be worried.

The second is that people do things with their smartphone photos -- post them to Facebook, edit and share them with Instagram, annotate Evernote documents, digitize business cards so contact information is synchronized with the cloud, feed them into Google to translate a sign in a foreign language. That's all possible because smartphones, unlike most cameras, are connected to the Internet.

The Canon PowerShot S110 has Wi-Fi built in, letting the camera communicate with smartphones.
The Canon PowerShot S110 has Wi-Fi built in, letting the camera communicate with smartphones. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Smartphone makers, knowing that there are photographers who aren't happy with mobile-phone photography, have shutterbug-oriented products. Two of the most interesting are Nokia's PureView 808 , with a high-quality 41-megapixel image sensor but the dying Symbian operating system, and the Samsung Galaxy Camera , which marries a point-and-shoot design with the Android operating system and the same wireless data networks phones use. Nikon is giving an Android camera a try , too.

But wireless networking in the camera industry in general has been conspicuous by its absence, isolating cameras from people's in-the-moment sharing activities.

Curiously, though, the very smartphones that have put the camera industry so much on the defensive are proving to be its savior, too. Cameras now can connect directly to those smartphones, letting the two cooperate rather than compete.

Canon's new SLR, the EOS 6D announced at Photokina, has Wi-Fi built in; with the Canon EOS Remote app for iOS and Android, people can remotely operate the camera, review photos even while the camera is stashed away in luggage, and most importantly, transfer photos to a smartphone for quick sharing.

Another new Wi-Fi-enabled Canon camera is the PowerShot S110 . For this model -- and doubtless others to come -- smartphone users can connect over Wi-Fi with the CameraWindow app for iOS or for Android. That lets people share their photos immediately using a phone.

This app also helps with geotagging -- the embedding of location data in photos. Though some cameras have GPS sensors built in, including Canon's 6D, Panasonic's Lumix ZS20, and Sony's Cyber-shot HX30V , smartphones have the advantage over pure GPS devices because they can set location from known Wi-Fi networks and cell phone towers. That can work faster than GPS and can be more reliable indoors. With the CameraWindow app, people can log their locations then later embed that data in the photos on the camera by checking the location recorded by the phone at the particular time each photo was taken.

Smartphone technology also will bleed into cameras. Touch screens are arriving here and there, now with better performance than the disappointingly slow first-generation versions. And today's built-in camera software, such as tools to add special effects to photos, will doubtless get more sophisticated.

This display by Sony shows the comparative size of full-frame sensors, a 36x24mm size drawn from the days of 35mm film photography, an APS-C sensor used in entry-level to midrange SLRs, and a smaller sensor that still is much larger than most used in compact cameras.
This display by Sony shows the comparative size of full-frame sensors, a 36x24mm size drawn from the days of 35mm film photography, an APS-C sensor used in entry-level to midrange SLRs, and a smaller sensor that still is much larger than most used in compact cameras. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Full-frame frenzy
As my colleague Lori Grunin has noted, full-frame sensors are suddenly fashionable . These are sensors the size of a frame of 35mm film, 36x24mm, and they're consequently expensive to build.

Even as mirrorless cameras push what can be done with smaller sensors and threaten sales of lower-end SLRs, a small but lucrative and prestigious higher-end SLR market has grown. Canon's 5D years ago brought the technology within price range of well-funded enthusiasts, and the 5D Mark II and newer 5D Mark III have kept them coming back for more. Nikon's D700 and more recently its D800 gave compelling alternatives to those from the Nikon side of the fence. The old days just a few years ago when full-frame cameras looked like an aberration are gone.

At Photokina, people swarmed the booths to see two hot new lower-cost $2,100 full-frame models, Canon's EOS 6D and Nikon's D600 . Those prices aren't cheap, but they're several hundred dollars lower than what's been out there, and it turns out that there are still a lot of photography pros and enthusiasts who want what a full-frame camera can offer: great image quality, especially in low-light conditions where the surface area of the sensor helps gather more light.

Video support, first successfully achieved with the Canon 5D Mark II arrival nearly four years ago, is redirecting the SLR market, too, as photo enthusiasts become videographers, and even serious cinematographers get involved. Canon's success even led it to launch a new cinema-specific C line of videocameras and lenses.

Sony is in on the full-frame action, too, with its new Alpha A99 , which marries a full-frame sensor to the company's translucent-mirror camera body technology. This approach uses an electronic viewfinder and a translucent mirror that doesn't flip out of the way, making it somewhat intermediate between the mirrorless designs and the traditional SLR designs.

Sony's Alpha booth didn't have nearly the throng of people compared to Nikon and Canon, but the company shouldn't be written off. If nothing else, Sony has been building stellar sensors -- including models for rivals such as Nikon's SLRs and Apple's iPhone 5. And with a new investment in Olympus, perhaps it'll be building more ties throughout the camera industry.

More ambitious perhaps is Sony's fluky Sony RX1 , a retro design reminiscent of some compact film cameras. It's got a nondetachable wide-angle lens with a fixed 35mm focal length and bright f2.0 aperture, so if you want to take shots of a child on the distant stage at the ballet recital, look elsewhere.

Its design and $2,800 price tag consign it to a pretty narrow niche -- deep-pocketed folks wanting some Henri Cartier-Bresson cachet, perhaps. But the fact that a mainstream consumer-electronics powerhouse such as Sony is angling for this market signals just how open to new ideas the camera makers have become.

The RX1 price is peanuts compared to Leica, which announced its new Leica M full-frame camera , a 24-megapixel, $7,000 rangefinder design that forsakes traditional viewfinders and autofocus (and the descendant of the Leica film cameras Cartier-Bresson helped popularize decades ago). Leica's first digital cameras used smaller sensors, but full-frame formats are particularly appropriate for a company so steeped in tradition -- and with such a high price tag. The new model is a major departure from the Leica shooting style: though it doesn't feature autofocus, its live-view display now comes with focusing aids such as a 10x magnification.

The Leica S is the next flagship model of the German camera maker's attempt to crack the high-end medium-format camera market.
The Leica S is the next flagship model of the German camera maker's attempt to crack the high-end medium-format camera market. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Meanwhile, some are trying even bigger sensors. Longtime medium-format camera maker Hasselblad's H5D and Phase One's 645DF+ arrived at Photokina, though Pentax was quiet with its 645D . Leica, a new player in medium format, announced its new Leica S that upgrades electronics in the earlier S2. It also announced three new lenses, 24mm, 120mm, and 30-90mm, because just as with cheaper mirrorless cameras, there's little appeal to an interchangeable-lens ecosystem that lacks lenses. Leica also offers an adapter for Hasselblad lenses.

While Leica and Pentax go large, Hasselblad is going small. Not satisfied being a medium-format specialist for pros, Hasselblad announced its Lunar mirrorless camera based on a Sony NEX-7. The Sony partnership will also yield an SLR-like model and a compact camera, the Swedish company said, but none of these departures from the medium-format market will be cheap. Instead, they'll emphasize luxury designs with unusual materials. It won't be a big market, but again it shows a willingness to take a risk.

Hasselblad's lower-end foray isn't likely to reshape the industry. But it is emblematic of that industry's grasping for new ideas: it might be a risky move, but now isn't the time to stick to the status quo.

Updated 12:34 p.m. PT to correct the name of the Canon compact camera with built-in Wi-Fi. It's the PowerShot S110.

 

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