Zooming In: Camera Design, Early Innovations and Today’s Uninspired Forms

Zooming In: Camera Design, Early Innovations and Today’s Uninspired Forms


Everyone and his dog has heard about Nero fiddling while Rome burned. There’s just one problem: Fiddles did not actually exist in Nero’s day. Nevertheless, it reminds me of what I personally see as the state of the photographic industry: traditional camera makers/designers are, by and large, fiddling with camera design. Burn, baby, burn.

Just a bit of background: Camera shapes and sizes used to be largely dictated by the type of film running through them. Speed Graflex cameras used very large negative film. Kodak Brownie box cameras used somewhat smaller but still large 127 film.

The first real breakthrough was the Leica 1 camera, which used 35mm film. Prithee look at modern digicams and too many of them look like variations on that Leica. I accept that the shapes are somewhat dictated by the use of two hands to hold the wee beasties, but all in all, the shapes are in that aforementioned rut.

When Steve Sasson invented a digital camera for the sleeping giant (Kodak), size and shape were dictated by the amount of circuitry he had to jam into the poor huge thing. Form factor was hardly an issue.

camera design Steve-Sasson-and-Camera
Steve Sasson and the first digital camera

In 1996, I worked for Premier Camera of Taiwan; the founder, John Huang, set out to develop a digital camera. Alas, he over-depended on some Japanese “experts” (so I quit) and showed a digicam at that year’s photokina. I was assured that below the prototype camera sitting on a display table was a mess of wires leading to black boxes. The camera ran for all of eight hours on four AA batteries while capturing VGA images in its tiny memory. It did not have a memory card slot. It was not a runaway success, alas. Shocker.

Early Innovations in Camera Design & Form

In 2004, I read an article online about a display developed by a Washington State company, Microvision. I contacted them; here’s where the coincidence becomes spooky. The CEO, Steve Willey, had a holiday house in Palm Springs; each year, because his wife refused to fly, they drove down Highway 1 to get to Palm Springs. They would stay overnight in Thousand Oaks, California, which is the town next to Westlake Village, where I live. Sheesh! We met in a Motel 6 (living it up!).

Later, I visited his company, saw his display and realized that in time the idea would allow for a mirrorless digital camera with a video mode. So I went to that year’s photokina and showed the idea to several big names in the industry. Not one took notice. It was the same intellectual rut that these guys are in now.

Around about that time, I tripped over a company now named GoPro. However, then it was just an idea in Nick Woodman’s surf-encrusted head. Nick wanted to make a sports camera and was playing with Kodak single-use film cameras. He asked me to help him get Kodak interested (I had worked for Haking, a major Kodak supplier in days of yore). I shopped Nick to several key Kodak contacts. Again the rut. Yawn, yawn. Nobody home.

camera design GoPro-Hero8-Black-right
GoPro Hero8 Black

Nick did some radical thinking in his early days, such as getting rid of the optical viewfinder. His cameras now do such a good job of low-cost image capture in adverse situations that Hollywood is swallowing them whole in high-risk action “filmmaking (remember that?) to grab amazing “footage” (remember that?). Alas, the Chinese (remember them?) copied Nick’s products and sell them dirt cheap, thus raining on his parade somewhat. (Who would have guessed?)

Current Image Capture Forms

In current digital cameras, we mostly see form factors mimicking 35mm cameras of old. However, they aren’t constrained by film size, obviously; imaging chips are tiny (as smartphones attest). In fact, the shrinking size of chips is probably limited by how small each pixel can be made, as well as the limit imposed by the wavelengths of light. (Experts: Feel free to jump in and flay me.)

Most modern digital cameras are stunningly me-too and boring to peruse. Not even a hint of that Tesla Cybertruck goes into their thinking.

MiNT SX-70 Alpha 1

This brings us to the current fad in image capture: the smartphone. In some sense, the form factors are genius; in others, they are a pain the wild, wild Watusi. They lose that reassuring tripod generated by our hands and forehead. We look like loonies waving these all-viewfinder-no-security mini monsters in the air as oft as not, trying to get above the horde of such devices being held thus right in front of us.

Moreover, memory is dirt cheap luckily, which allows our bad habit of shooting multiple frames in the hope that at least one is acceptable. One saving grace of the smartphone is that each is what the Japanese called (about their single-use film cameras) TPO: Time Place Opportunity. It was and is easy to have a camera with you at all times. But smartphones are in a rut, too, me thinks. Which allows the Chinese to yet again intrude on this arena.

The Challenge

So here is the challenge to the camera industry: stop copying each other. Come up with some fresh ideas. Stop gilding the lily. While you are fiddling, China is eating your lunch . . . and breakfast . . . and dinner.

For example, MiNT Camera in Hong Kong is (apparently) thriving by grafting on to the old Polaroid ecosystem. Good for them. Alas they are an outlier.

But in Japan: What’s next, chaps? How about a bit of lateral thinking?