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My Dream SLR

by E.J. Peiker | September 30, 2007

It has now been 4 years since my initial article and challenge to DSLR manufacturers to build a better digital camera. Fortunately, many of the items have come to fruition, but there is still work to be done. My initial wish list, and the one-year follow up, as well as the NatureScapes.Net letter to Canon that I drafted included the following items:

From 2003:

  • 8.6 megapixel sensor. We have far exceeded that at this point.
  • 10 stops of useable dynamic range. We’re not there yet, but it’s a bit better than four years ago.
  • Making sensors less prone to dust. We have kluge systems to shake it off and map it out, but the sensors are still way too prone to dust.
  • A call for Nikon to incorporate their 1005 segment meter into their DSLRs – DONE!!!
  • For Canon to develop an evaluative meter that doesn’t have a tendency to blow out highlights. The meter is still the same, but the EOS 1D Mark III does incorporate a highlight priority mode, which deals with this relatively well. But if Sony can put a meter that doesn’t blow highlights in virtually any situation into their lower end Alpha, why can’t Canon do this in their $8000 flagship?
  • I called for a joystick-like AF point selector on Canon cameras. They did it on the prosumer models but the pro bodies still have the arcane “two-dial” approach.
  • Better dynamic AF tracking. This has improved substantially although the 1D Mark III seems to have some well-publicized issues in this area.
  • Weatherproofing the flash system. Looks like Canon has taken this one to heart with their new 580EX II flash and the new flash hot shoe design on the pro bodies.
  • I asked for two configurable compact flash slots, NOT one SD card slot and one flash card slot. That’s just dumb; they expect you to carry around two different types of media and their readers! Nikon got this right on the latest D3 with two compact flash card slots.
  • Better rear panel LCDs. These have become much better and much more readable. A 3-inch screen is now standard and Nikon has taken it to a new level with a very high resolution screen.
  • I called for wireless communication capability – DONE!

From 2004:

  • In 2004 I was still looking for flash confirmation in the viewfinder on Canon bodies similar to what other manufacturers have been offering since the 1980’s – still looking for that!
  • I wanted to see the histogram superimposed over the image in the viewfinder and on the rear LCD – Nikon has long had it on the rear LCD; Canon still provides a pitiful histogram, which is the single most important thing to display on the rear LCD. We still don’t have in the viewfinder histograms but the technology is not too far away.
  • I called for Canon to stop blanking out their viewfinders when a button is pushed – DONE!
  • In 2004 Fuji had competition from the standpoint of dynamic range in a DSLR. Today it still doesn’t have any competition in this regard but unfortunately the resolution has not increased with the times.
  • At the time Konica Minolta was just starting to show in-camera anti-shake technology. Originally I was skeptical about it but I was wrong; it is a very viable technology.
  • I called for automatic digital sensor cleaning; the manufacturers are at least trying but this technology still has a way to go before it matures.
  • More cross type AF sensors. We are finally starting to see this happen.
  • I called for user interface simplification and fewer nested menus. This has improved somewhat and by now we have all become accustomed to the arcane nature of setting up the cameras.
  • I renewed my wish for 1/500 flash sync in all pro DSLRs. I am still hopeful that someone will make a breakthrough here but I’m not betting on it.

From the NatureScapes.Net Open Letter to Canon in 2005:

  • Full screen histograms. It is unjustifiable that Canon still does not have a full-screen histogram on the rear panel. There is no single more important piece of information that the camera displays than the histogram, yet Canon continues to choose to relegate this to a small corner of the already poor rear panel LCD display. This is true even on the high-end pro bodies.
  • We again asked for in-camera flash exposure confirmation; this still has not happened.
  • We again asked for a discrete mirror lock up button; this still has not happened.
  • We asked to be rid of the arcane Personal Functions that were left over from the film days, that all functions be directly addressable on the camera. The EOS 1D Mark III and 1Ds Mark III have implemented all functions on the rear LCD rather than separate Custom Functions and Personal Functions.

My Dream Camera in 2007

Many of the requests and desired features over the last few years have found their way into the current crop of cameras but we still have a long way to go to get to my dream digital SLR. The recently introduced Nikon D3 starts to come close on paper but is lacking in the megapixel department. Here is what I am looking for in order to be a happy and content digital photographer. This assumes that the innovations that have already appeared in cameras like the 1D Mark III and D3 are already incorporated:

  1. Full-frame sensor at a minimum of 4 frames per second and a high-speed crop mode (1.3x to 1.6x) at a minimum of 8 frames per second. This would allow a single camera to satisfy the high resolution needs of landscape photography and the high frame rate needs of wildlife photography.
  2. Approximately 18-20 megapixels in full-frame mode and 10- to 12- megapixels in high-speed crop mode if a Bayer sensor is used. If a Foveon-like sensor is used, I would want at least 15 megapixels in full-frame mode and 8 in cropped mode. I do not wish a higher megapixel count in this genre of camera as we are already bumping up against the diffraction limits at the smaller apertures required for long depth of field. The photo sensors need to take up a very large percentage of the pixel size with high light collection micro lenses and excellent pixel-to-pixel isolation to prevent blooming (a phenomenon where light from one pixel spills onto the next thereby reducing sharpness at high contrast edges).
  3. The option to turn on image sensor based vibration reduction for lenses that do not have IS/VR. This function would automatically disable if an IS/VR lens were attached to the camera. This allows us to use the superior lens-based image stabilization when stabilized lenses are attached but still allows us the benefits of stabilization when non-stabilized lenses are used.
  4. 14-bit per color channel minimum and 16-bit per color optimal. Smooth tonal graduations, even on a highly manipulated image are the result of higher bit density. The 4096 levels per color of a 12-bit sensor has been the standard for RAW files since digital SLRs appeared. The newest cameras offer 14-bits per color or 16384 levels per color. Modern medium format digital backs use true 16-bit color or 65536 color levels per pixel.
  5. A minimum buffer size of 15 images with a full buffer flush capability in the neighborhood of 3 seconds. More is better but not at the expense of flash card write speed.
  6. An autofocus system that covers the full width and height of the viewfinder and has focus points at the rule of thirds points. At minimum the center sensor and rule of thirds sensors must be highly sensitive cross type sensors. The age of all AF sensors concentrated in the middle of the frame has passed us by. I would be very happy with the D2x AF system. Speed of the AF system should be as good as or better than what the EOS 1D Mark III is advertised. Sensitivity at minimum should go to -1Ev or lower.
  7. Autofocus sensor selection from a single point on the camera such as a joystick. Canon is a laggard here with an arcane two-control AF sensor selection method on their pro cameras. Oddly the prosumer and non-pro cameras allow AF selection from a single control.
  8. A viewfinder that overlays a histogram in the viewfinder based on the scene being photographed and the exposure choices made.
  9. Strong but lightweight body construction (perhaps carbon fiber). I would like to see in the neighborhood of 25% to 33% of the weight being shaved off of the EOS 1D or Nikon D series of professional bodies without sacrificing ruggedness or weather sealing.
  10. Two identical media card slots like the Nikon D3 has implemented. It is beyond comprehension that the Canon pro bodies continue on with two media types. In order to use both media slots, one must invest in both CF and SD cards. Nikon has this right.
  11. Full screen histogram on the back LCD panel. The histogram is the single most important piece of information that the rear LCD panel displays. Relegating the histogram to a small percentage of the LCD is unfathomable. Additionally, in playback, one should be able to overlay the histogram on the photo.
  12. Integrated wireless and GPS rather than in add-on modules (this is a nice to have, but not essential to me).
  13. 1/500 flash sync. It’s time we got back to this. Advances in shutter design should make this capability possible in the future.
  14. Mirror lock up single touch button. Although it is now possible on new Canon bodies to program a customizable function to flip up the mirror, it should be a single button. Every manufacturer except Canon does this already.
  15. Live view with AF (the Nikon D3 has a rudimentary system for this). Refinements in these systems are likely and welcome.

There you have it, my 15-step program to create the perfect DSLR, at least as close to perfection as my mind can currently comprehend. As to perfect lenses… we will save that for another time.

About the Author

E.J. was born in 1960 in Augsburg, Germany and moved to Ohio in 1969. He attended Purdue University and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and completed graduate studies in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Physics. After working for the Intel Corporation for 27 years, he is now retired from the electronics industry and is a professional freelance photographer. E.J. and has formally studied photography at the University of New Mexico and completed courses from The Rocky Mountain School of Photography. E.J. has two sons, and has lived in Chandler, Arizona since 1994. A photographic specialty is artistic images of ducks and E.J. has published the book Ducks of North America - The Photographer's Guide. E.J. is also prolific in landscape photography, his first photographic love. E.J.'s photographs have been published worldwide in books, advertising, magazines, billboards, murals and more. Some of his publishers and clients include The National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, The United States National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Navy, State Parks Arizona, Barrons, and Dorling Kindersley. New Zealand Post honored E.J. by making one of his penguin images the primary image for their 2014 Commemorative Antarctica Ross Dependency Stamp set. He has also been named one of the top 100 Wildlife Photographers in the world by Eastern Europe's Digital Photographer Magazine. Visit his website at: www.ejphoto.com.

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