My decade old riddle.

Sometime back in 1998 the company that I worked for ask me to look for a digital camera for the company. In those year the market for consumer digital camera was quite new. The prices of consumer digital camera are crazy. A high end point-and-shoot camera of 2 mega pixels is about the price of a mid range DSLR of 16 Mega pixel of today.

I started visiting camera shops, visiting website of various camera manufacturers, searching online reviews. However there were not many model or that many info you can find online in those day. DSLR  are out of the budget set by my company.

Finally I narrow down to three cameras models. The Sony Mavica, a Fuji Finepix and the Olympus Camedia. My company director finally decided on the Camedia base on my input on the FAB from each of the three cameras.

Jordan Formula-1 car mockup model on display
Jordan Formula-1 racing car mockup model on pormotional display in 1999 taken with Olympus Camedia. - c2000z 1/30s f2.0 ISo100

I was given the task to become an expert with the new camera and provides advise and instruction to anyone who want to use that camera. In short a talking and walking camera manual is what the company expect of me.

While playing with the camera I ask myself this question; "From the beginning in film camera the cameraman focus an image on the focusing ground glass. He then replace the ground glass with a sheet of film for the photo to be taken. So the cameraman cannot focus and take photo at the same time and the process of doing this is tedious and slow.

Cross section view of a SLR
Cross section view of a SLR

SLR camera with a reflex mirror box was introduced to solve this problem. In the SLR camera first the reflex mirror will direct an image from the lens to the focusing screen on the upper part of the camera body. The photographer can view and focus the image through the viewfinder. When the camera shutter is trigger the reflex mirror will swing up and get out of the way to allow the image to form on the film.

There are other methods to solve this problem. Such as twin lens reflex and range finder camera but those add other problem to the solution as well. So the SLR camera provides the best solution.

However a digital camera do not have this problem of replacing a ground glass for focusing and insert a film for taking images. The sensor can always send and display the images that is form on the sensor to the camera display monitor real time. The sensor can also preform the contrast detect focusing as well. This is common to all compact digital camera.

So why do digital camera need the mirror box and the reflex mirror at all? Why do camera manufacturers bother to make DSLR? They can just make interchangeable lens digital camera without having to bother with SLR technology borrowed from the film era?"

Recently while reading several interview of Mr Akira Wantanabe, Manager Olympus Imaging Corp., SLR Product Strategy Department. I found my answer to this riddle by reading between the line of what he said. Here are the three major one I reckon on.
  • The bigger image sensor of SLR camera cannot focus fast enough they depend on a faster phase-detect focusing sensor to perform the focusing. This phase-detect sensor require the reflex mirror for focusing.
  • Second nobody want to start something new with a total redesign of the SLR based camera system. This may risk affecting the large stable base of legacy camera users carried over from the film era.
  • Third digital technology was not yet ready to replace the well proven optical viewfinder of the SLR. Early LCD display technology had low contrast, low resolution and slow refresh time that certainly not good enough for viewing or checking focus in the field.

Therefore the old fashioned mechanical SLR design had to stay with the modern digital camera while waiting for the technology to evolve.

Mirror-less camera cross section
Cut open view of the Olympus E-P1

Now a decades have past and technology have progress and we can actually do away with the SLR system borrowed from the film era. This will make the camera smaller also lower manufacturing cost in the long run.

We are actually witnessing this new era unfolding with the new generation of mirror-less system camera initiated by Panasonic and Olympus. Samsung and Sony have joint the party as well. Other camera manufacturer are watching with a keen eyes with great interest.

This is a wonderful time for digital photography. I think this is the phase two of digital camera development. I believe the mirror-less system camera will have a bright future ahead. The mirror-less system camera will not replace the DSLR they had rooted. Each type of camera system had their pros and cons. However this will allow the photographers to have a wider choice of what is best for their type of photography and their style of working.

I am happy I had found the answer to my decade old riddle and I am a happy owner of the answer too.

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