In this two-part series, Admiring Light will take a brief look at the history of cameras, look at the emergence of digital Compact System Cameras (mirrorless digital cameras), and finally examine upcoming products and how they may, or may not, fit into the modern photographer’s quest for the Perfect Camera. This is part one; part two is here.
Ever since modern photography became a mainstream art, photographers have been searching for the perfect gear for their needs. At the beginning of modern photography, it was a specialty art that required the use of large view cameras with solid plates of either metal or glass, and was not only extremely technically challenging, but often beyond the understanding or means of the average Joe.
This began to change when George Eastman developed celluloid film and really began to take off with mass-market appeal with the introduction of the Brownie in 1900. This opened low-cost photography to the masses, though professionals and those serious about photography generally stuck to plates and view cameras for superior quality. When Oskar Barnack at Leitz developed the first camera using 35mm film and began marketing it as the Leica I in 1925, it really started the thought process among even serious photographers about which camera and system to choose, and what the drawbacks and benefits to the smaller 35mm format were.
The 35mm format ended up being a real sweet spot for quality, ease of use and portability, and became the dominant format for photography in the 20th Century. This can be subdivided into two distinct categories of 35mm camera, as both Rangefinders and Single Lens Reflex cameras took a major foothold. The 35mm rangefinder became the camera of choice for street photography and candid portraiture, while the SLR was dominant for most other types of photography within the 35mm realm. The SLR became most prominent due to the handling, through the lens viewfinder, development of fast autofocus and high speed motor drives.
Then digital came along. Around the turn of the 21st Century, digital imaging technology had reached a point where the quality was viable as an alternative to film for many uses and the first digital SLRs began to emerge, though priced for professionals only. By 2003 , when Canon introduced the EOS Digital Rebel, digital had finally attained viability not only for working professionals, but for the enthusiast as well. The digital SLR market exploded, and quality continued to evolve, equaling and eventually surpassing 35mm film in quality for almost any circumstance, while adding features that would have been unheard of just 15 years earlier.
This brings us to today, where a new quest has brought the industry to a very interesting place, where photographers of all kinds are taking a step back and searching for something more. Simplicity and portability are taking a prominent position once again, as photographers realize that it is possible to achieve the portability and discreetness that rangefinder shooters have enjoyed with film (and those lucky enough to afford the Leica digital M’s), but with all the advancements of a modern SLR system.
In other words, photographers want the Perfect Camera. Lightweight, portable, stylish, but with excellent functionality and feel, modern autofocus, impeccable image quality. Is all this even possible in one body?
Next, Mirrorless Digital Cameras: