The digital camera money can't buy.

This article was written quite some time ago and is pretty outdated by now although maybe not completely useless. (And in case you're wondering: I'm almost exclusively using analog cameras these days.)

I'm an amateur photographer and in the past fifteen years or so I've used a Leica M4-P most of the time, almost always shooting black-and-white on Tri-X. Only recently did I switch to digital cameras after a long period of reluctance. I started with a Ricoh GX 200, but although it basically did what it promised I decided to get the real thing after having used the Ricoh for a few weeks: I now use a Leica M8.2 and I'm very happy with it. I wouldn't want to exchange it for any other digital camera currently available. (Well, this was written before the M9 was released...) But this text is about the other camera I'd like to have. This other camera is smaller, lighter, and cheaper than my Leica, but unfortunately you can't buy it because it doesn't exist (yet)...

What I'm talking about (and looking for) is the perfect decisive-moment camera. That's a term I haven't coined and I'm not entirely happy with it, but the people this camera is targeted at will most likely understand what it means. A decisive-moment camera is a camera that's small and lightweight enough to always carry it with you, for example in the pocket of your jacket, but at the same time it offers enough quality and controls to be the "second system" for pros or "serious" amateurs who will have one or more big SLRs or rangefinder cameras as their first system. Others have written about this mythical camera already, see for example here and here. I don't agree with every detail in these articles but they demonstrate that I'm certainly not the only one looking for such a device.

Why do I want this camera? As I said, I really like the M8.2, but it has two downsides for me. One is that it is simply a bit too heavy and big to have it always with you. It is lighter and smaller than the usual "pro" dSLRs, but still of a size you'd need some kind of bag or rucksack for. The second "problem" is its price. Add a good Leica lens to the body and you're easily carrying around more than 7,000 Euros worth of equipment. That's fine if your main purpose is to take photos, but if you're doing something else and you want a camera with you "just in case", you probably want something a bit cheaper in your pocket - unless you have a lot more money than I have.

So, why don't we simply start and describe this not-yet-existent camera in more detail? There you go:

The stuff that's not negotiable

[digital]
In case that wasn't obvious, we're talking about a digital camera. Good analog decisive-moment cameras are or were available. The point is that their digital counterparts haven't materialized yet.
[size]
As I said, it should fit comfortably in a jacket pocket. The size and weight of the GX 200, for example, would be fine. A bit bigger and heavier I could live with. And it should come integrated with a handgrip.
[sensor]
A sensor that's big compared to typical digital compacts. (If you don't know why this is desirable, you're probably not a potential buyer of this camera.) The Sigma DP1 demonstrates that you can fit an APS-C sensor into a compact camera, so that's where the bar is. (If all other features are there, Micro Four Thirds would also be acceptable, but - as we all know - bigger is better.) Oh, and 10 MP is enough. Really.
[lens]
I want a really good and fast prime lens. (No zoom, thank you.) My favorite focal length (35mm equivalent) would be 35mm, but I could live with 28mm as well. The upcoming Sigma DP2 will have f/2.8 and the Leica D-Lux 4 demonstrates that f/2 is possible for a compact (albeit with a small sensor), so I wouldn't settle for less.
[low-light]
The camera should have decent performance in low-light conditions. The fast lens I mentioned will certainly help, but care should be taken that the resulting files are usable (i.e. not too noisy) at least up to ISO 800. The higher, the better, of course, and the sensor size will certainly help with this.
[viewfinder]
A bright, no-nonsense optical viewfinder (no electronic "liveview" gadget). It doesn't have to be as sophisticated and precise as the one on a Leica M, but some space around the frame would be totally great. And the viewfinder absolutely must be an integral part of the camera and not an optional attachment as with the D-Lux 4, the GX 200, or the DP1. A viewfinder which protrudes out of the body destroys the whole idea of a pocketable camera.
[fast]
Not only the lens must be fast, the camera itself also has to be as fast as possible, meaning there should be virtually no shutter lag, at least with manual focus. And it should have a reasonable burst rate - I don't need to shoot 20 frames per seconds, but I certainly don't want to wait before I can press the shutter a second time as with the DP1.
[controls]
It goes without saying that the main parameters when taking pictures (focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO) can all be controlled manually. Furthermore, I'd like to have decent mechanical controls (like wheels) for these parameters - I don't want to press buttons or fiddle with a joystick, and I want to be able to adjust these parameters without watching the LCD screen. It seems (I haven't used it yet) this is an area where the Canon G10 excels. Ideally, you can not only set the values from these controls, you can also read them like with, say, the shutter speed dial on the M8.2. The latter will be hard to do on a small camera body, so I'm willing to compromise here.
[rugged]
The camera should be rugged, probably sporting a metal body. It doesn't need to be designed for a war photographer, but it should take some knocks without complaining. (Remember, you want to have it always with you.) And waterproof. I don't need to be able to dive with it, but I don't want to be afraid to take it out of my jacket in heavy rain.
[battery life]
As memory cards are big enough to store hundreds, if not thousands of images nowadays (of course, our camera will accept SDHC cards or something comparable), the limiting factor is battery life. The camera's (rechargeable) battery should be optimized to last as long as possible. If it optionally accepts non-rechargeable batteries (like the GX 200), that's a nice bonus and good in case of "emergency" situations.
[raw]
The camera will of course create raw image files. And it will use the DNG standard and not some proprietary format.
[silent]
The camera should be as silent as possible. That's easy, most compacts already are pretty good at that, but I thought I should mention it.
[price]
As I already said, the price of the camera is one of its defining characteristics, although not the most important one. See more below.

Things that are nice to have but not critical

[LCD screen]
If you have a decent optical viewfinder and good mechanical controls, there won't be much space left for the LCD screen. Well, that's fine with me. Even on the M8.2 I use the screen only occasionally and I wouldn't mind if it were smaller. Actually, if I the main mechanical controls (see above) are all in place, I'd love to have a screen that can be flipped and folded in together with the buttons as on the Epson R-D1. Don't know if that's feasible given the size restrictions, though.
[lens cover]
The lens will not only be a prime lens, it will also be fixed, meaning it will not be one of those lenses that come out of the body when the camera is switched on and retract when it's turned off. (This will also help to preserve battery life.) It will come with a clever lens cover that you can neither lose nor inadvertently leave on when you're shooting.
[choice of lenses]
The camera won't have interchangeable lenses, but you can buy different variants with different fixed lenses. 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm would be the obvious choices for me, all at f/2 or faster.
[black-and-white]
You can optionally buy the camera with a monochrome (non-Bayer) sensor. (Yeah, this is pretty unlikely from an economical point of view, but hey...)
[metering modes]
The camera should offer different modes for exposure metering including at least spot metering and multi-zone metering with lots of segments.
[hyperfocal]
If the camera has autofocus (which is not mandatory as far as I am concerned), it should also have a setting for hyperfocal distance which automatically adjusts the focus as you change the aperture. (So, you'd only have this available in aperture priority or manual mode.) That will definitely be faster than autofocus and is very often a good setting for reportage-style photography. (Actually, I don't understand why this isn't a common feature in today's cameras.)
[customization]
Every setting that's controlled electronically should be customizable, i.e. there should be several "user modes" and maybe also buttons and/or wheels that you can assign functions to. My impression is that Ricoh is pretty good at that and whoever wants to build such a camera can learn a lot from them. Talking to a couple of professional photographers when designing the user interface certainly won't hurt either.
[memory]
Whatever parameters I've set, I want the camera to remember them when it's turned off and then on again. Period.
[image stabilization]
That seems to be something that works quite well nowadays. It'd be nice if you could optionally enable it.

What I absolutely don't want

So, how much will it cost?

That's a good question and of course I don't know the perfect answer. It is obvious that it should cost significantly less than the real big ones like the EOS-1Ds or the M8. On the other hand, it will have to be more expensive than the current top-notch compacts that I've mentioned above, like the D-Lux 4, the DP1, the GX 200, or the G10. I think it will end up somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 Euros and I leave it to the marketing guys to figure out the sweet spot. I'm pretty sure if someone really builds such a camera, it'll be in a class of its own for quite some time, and for those who really want to get it, 100 Euros more or less won't make much of a difference.

Why can't we buy this camera and who will eventually build it?

Judging from what I hear from other photographers and from what I read on the Internet, there is significant demand for such a camera. So, why does nobody produce and sell it?

Are the technical hurdles too high? I doubt it. All of the features I've enumerated are already available in different cameras, and it shouldn't be too hard to build one camera that combines all of them. Doing that will certainly require some design effort and maybe some compromises have to me made, but it doesn't look like a mission impossible to me.

Do I overestimate the demand for this camera? Maybe everybody except me is happy with the choice of either a super-dumb point-and-shoot or a brick-like monster SLR? Hmmm, I can't believe that. But maybe this is what the marketing departments of the camera vendors think.

Or is it true that all the Canons, Nikons, and Sonys only really make money with the cheapo stuff while the pro models are mainly built for the company's reputation?

Whatever the reason is, I somehow don't expect one of the top dogs to create this camera. If it ever materializes, it is more likely to come from a company like Ricoh, Sigma, or Leica. If I had to bet, I'd put my money on Leica. Leica's owner, Dr. Kaufmann, made some remarks at Photokina 2008 about upcoming models that'll fill the gap between the D-Lux 4 and the M8, and Leica would also be the best candidate to produce the fast prime lens(es) for our camera. One thing's for sure - if Leica offers a decisive-moment camera in 2009, I'll be the first one to buy it!

Update (2009-09-09): Is it here now?

I originally wrote this text in October 2008 and almost a year later it seems that the camera I've been longing for might finally be there, or at least almost. I'm not talking about the Sigma DP2 and I don't mean the Olympus EP-1 or the Panasonic GF1 either. These are all kind of interesting, but they're not quite what I want, partly due to issues of "look and feel" as photographer John Thawley explained here and here.

No, what I think could be the decisive-moment camera for me is the Leica X1. I haven't had it in my hands yet, but from the published specs and from what I've heard about it, it seems like an extremely good fit. Some aspects (like the really large sensor, the "traditional" layout of "mechanical" controls, the focal length, the size, the metal body, and simply the overall look of it) are more than I dared to hope for. Some other things (the retracting lens or the flash) aren't exactly what I wanted, but I can probably live with them. The X1 ain't cheap, but it's in the ballpark of what I expected.

The only thing that bothered me initially was (again) the absence of a built-in viewfinder. But I'm beginning to believe that we'll probably never see a decent OVF integrated into the body of a digital compact. It would simply take away too much real estate from the back of the camera which is needed for the LCD and the buttons, and I don't expect any camera vendor to be bold enough to sacrifice these "must-haves". You can get a Leica-quality accessory viewfinder (albeit at a price) for the X1, though, and I guess I'm willing to live with that.

Update (2009-12-14): Nope

I've read several reviews of the X1 by now and I decided not to buy it. No OVF (if you add the external one, the camera simply ain't pocketable anymore) and no decent way to pre-focus the camera manually (i.e. without resorting to the LCD) are the two issues that eventually killed it for me. That I currently feel more drawn towards analog photography again doesn't make things better.

I still think Leica is on the right track with this camera, though, and I'm looking forward to its successor - or to something interesting from other manufacturers.

Update (2010-09-20): Fujifilm, who would have thought?

Today, one of the makers I didn't even think about announced a new camera which could finally be the real thing - the Fujifilm X100. From what I've read so far, everything including the design looks just about right. FWIW, here are some of the things the Leica X1 already did right the X100 also has:

And here's how the X100 improves on the X1:

Now let's just hope you can also pre-focus the thing manually without jumping through too many hoops. And that it isn't significantly louder than the very quiet X1.


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