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This article was written quite some time ago and is pretty outdated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
I'm an amateur photographer and in the past fifteen years or so I've
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
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
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
cameras as their first system. Others have written about this
mythical camera already, see for
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,
Four Thirds would also be acceptable, but - as we all know -
bigger is better.) Oh, and 10 MP is enough. Really.
- 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
D-Lux 4 demonstrates that f/2 is possible for a compact
(albeit with a small sensor), so I wouldn't settle for less.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The camera will of course create raw image files.
And it will use
standard and not some proprietary format.
- 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.
- 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
- [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.
- 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.
- If the camera has autofocus (which is not
mandatory as far as I am concerned), it should also have a setting
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
- 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.
- Whatever parameters I've set, I want the camera
to remember them when it's turned off and then on again.
- [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
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
- Movie recording.
- Audio recording.
- An integrated flash.
- A self-timer.
- "Scene modes".
- Post-processing features that can be better done in Lightroom or
- Sound effects.
- Face detection.
- A camera trying to be smarter than me.
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
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
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
No, what I think could be the decisive-moment camera for me
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:
- fixed 35mm lens
- traditional "mechanical" controls for shutter speed and aperture (on the X100 they're even on the lens where they belong)
- large sensor
- metal body
- size and weight
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.
- an integrated viewfinder, and even a very innovative one which seems to combine the advantages of optical and electronic viewfinders
- a lens which doesn't retract into the body
- one stop faster than the X1 (and, based on Fujifilm's experience, most likely at least the same high-ISO performance - something the X1 was already very good at)
- integrated ND filters
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