Comparing The Two…

“As a designer, I want to design a camera … that does not get in the way.”

Over the past month I’ve photographed with a number of cameras, from the Nikon D70 and Olympus OM-1 to the Canon SD100. Switching between SLRs and compacts, digital and film and current vs. older models, I’ve clarified my perspective on today’s SLR design aesthetic. In a word: disappointing.

And it’s sad I feel this way.

I wanted to believe that SLR design had improved across the board since the 1972 release of the OM-1 – but that’s not the case. Fact is, in a number of key areas, today’s designs are actually worse than their predecessors.

Now, I’m no techno-luddite. I’m not here to laud the purity of an all-manual approach to photography, deify film or discount the technical advances of the past three decades. But I think it’s time that manufacturers* rethink the AE-1’s influence on their current offerings. That their designers sit down with the best of the AE-1 predecessors and ask “What did they do right?”
* From this point on I refer to Nikon only

It is disappointing just how far current Nikon SLRs have strayed from the small and light aesthetic. For the most part they are chunkier in every dimension, with oversized grips that make for a less-than-discrete profile. Raise them, and they announce “I am here, taking a photograph“. Even Nikon’s smallest body – the D40(x) – suffers from this affliction, though it comes closest to the spirit of the OM-1. Olympus’s own E-410 however, is even closer. Using the key below:

Stylized Camera

Camera dimension key

I’ve listed the sizes of these three cameras in the following table:

Table 1: Comparing physical dimensions
Model Width (mm) Height (mm) Depth (mm) Weight (g)
OM-1 136 83 48/28 510
E-410 130 91 53 435
D40 126 94 64 522

The D40 is 1.1 cm taller, no doubt a consequence of its central built-in flash. But it’s depth that’s the biggest divergence between the two generations. The D40 is a full 3.6 cm deeper than the OM-1 at the edges, a difference that’s immediately apparent when you pick up the two cameras. The OM-1’s lower, slimmer profile allows it to feel, to be, more discreet.

Size and weight aren’t the only notable differences. For starters, I’ve not yet seen a Nikon DSLR whose viewfinder compares to that on the 35-year old OM-1. The D40, while closest in physical attributes, has one that’s shamefully small and dim in comparison.

High-quality viewfinders make an appreciable difference; I certainly found it far more pleasurable and experiential to photograph with my OM-1 than my D70. No longer is there the perception that you’re viewing the world through a tunnel, that you’re separated from events – no – you’re part of it all, and events in the frame are happening. The viewfinder on the OM-1 is larger, brighter and clearer. The side-to-side comparo between the two systems left me aghast – I now understood why “tunnel-like” was used to describe the DSLR viewing experience.

Shutter noise and mirror-slap is another factor. When the shutter on my D70 fires I can hear it – a sharp, intrusive “Clack!“. I can feel it too – I’m often surprised. Here too, the OM-1 is far better-behaved. Although its shutter doesn’t have the background-blending “snick” of Leica bodies, it’s certainly quieter than the D70. The mirror is much better damped however and, as a result, I’m much more at ease hand-holding at lower shutter speeds.

Then there’s the handling.

That’s a mixed bag; there are aspects of the D70 I strongly prefer over the OM and vice-versa. On the OM the three things I care about – shutter speed, aperture and focus – lie along the lens and changes are a matter of moving my left hand to the appropriate ring. Although rings are easier to handle than the tiny buttons that festoon the backs of consumer DSLRs – especially with gloved hands – their proximity to each other was an issue. Chalk it down to inexperience, but I often knocked my focus out after adjusting either shutter speed or aperture.

Rings have another advantage – feedback. There are definite ‘ends’ to the shutter and aperture ranges and by counting the click-stops I can tell just how far I’ve gone. While the D70 lacks this tactile feedback, the viewfinder info display compensates (for me). I can see this being a serious detriment to ‘from-the-hip’ shooters though…

Olympus OM-1 Body Sized

Olympus OM-1

So – quick summary – in what ways are the D40/D70 worse than the OM-1?

  • Poorer, tunnel-like viewfinders
  • Bulkier profile, with prominent handgrips that accentuate the camera’s depth
  • Louder, harsher shutters with less mirror damping
  • Handling – especially when using gloves

I don’t think modern cameras are failures. I like, and still use my D70. But I think Nikon can, and should do a Maitani – step back and rethink what cameras should be to their users. Perhaps a reminder of his philosophy would be useful:

As a designer, I want to design a camera that becomes an inseparable part of the photographer, a camera that does not get in the way.

— Yoshihisa Maitani

Hopefully the next generation of Nikon consumer bodies will see a movement towards that ideal.

Notes:

  • I really like where Nikon is going with the D40(x) – but I don’t think they’ve pushed it far enough. Even thinner, lower profile, two command dials, better viewfinder… There are many non-features that can make it the digital OM-1.
  • Olympus pushed the DSLR boundaries with its E-330. By utilizing a porro-viewfinder they separated the flash from the finder, thus losing the prism hump. Result? Within 4mm of the OM’s height. It’d be interesting to see a re-exploration along those lines.


Credits:
Images of rare early Olympus M-1 camera courtesy of Mr. Larry Shapiro®. He also operates a popular Ebay Store where he often lists many used photo equipment .. Other that, you can also visit his website for more information. Images copyright © 2003. All rights reserved. Please respect the visual property of the contributing photographer.

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