Building a Better Camera

Thinking about a $22,000 lens got me thinking about “real” cameras a bit more. And it occurred to me that Canon is in kind of a weird spot right now.

Their flagship camera has always been the EOS-1. With digital it was the 1D, which was followed by a 1Ds. The s designates that it’s meant for studio work, with a higher resolution but lower framerate. After a while Canon replaced them with the “Mark II” edition of the 1D and 1Ds, and a few years (?) ago, the Mark III edition.

The Mark IIIs were well received. The 1D Mark III supported up to ISO6400 if unlocked, allowing great low-light performance. The 1Ds Mark III is what really got people drooling, though, with a 21-megapixel resolution. I think it was around 10 megapixels that people started saying that resolution wars should really be considered over. 21 megapixels, in the eyes of many, bests medium-format cameras. People shoot for two-page magazine spreads and billboards with lower resolutions.

The awkward sitution comes from the Canon 5D Mark II. The 5D is still a very high-end line, but it’s meant to be second fiddle to the 1D. But the 5D Mark II boasts 21 megapixels, the same as their flagship 1Ds Mark III. It records 1080p video. And what really wins me over is that it gives Nikon’s D3 a run for its money: ISO6400 out of the box, and you can enable “High ISO” support for ISO 12,800 and 25,600, allowing photos to be taken in absurdly low light. It sells for $2,700, less than half of the $7,000 1Ds Mark III.

So it’s high time for a Mark IV series. I haven’t even seen rumors about it yet, which tend to start long before the camera’s released. But here are some of the things I’d really like to see Canon release in a Mark IV edition:

  • Higher ISO support with lower noise. I’m not sure many people even imagined ISO6400 in the days of film (though it looks like there may have been such a thing, though it certainly wasn’t sold in Walmart), but the trend has been started. ISO12,800 and ISO25,600 are kind of experimental modes that remain very noisy (grainy). When I’m in the market for a new digital SLR in a few years, I hope it’s got a noise-free ISO25,600, or higher. Consider that increasing sensitivity just twice more would bring “ISO 100K.” Canon and Nikon, it’s a race. You heard it here first. I want the 1D Mark IV to put Canon in the lead, and Nikon to come out with a D4 to try to one-up them, with the end result being a camera that can take photos in dimly-lit rooms without five-figure lenses.
  • Get rid of the mechanical shutter. Sample the sensor for the necessary duration. It seems there are design challenges in eliminating the shutter, but it’s really a vestigial organ on a digital camera. This removes a common spot of mechanical failure, and paves the road to higher shutter speeds. I don’t think any camera (possibly excluding ultra-expensive scientific gear) can exceed 1/8000th of a second shutter speeds right now. Accidentally shoot outside at f/1.8 and ISO1600 on a sunny day and tell me it’s not a limit. (Yes, yes, why would you want to do that? Because I needed the shallow depth of field and forgot my camera was cranked to ISO1600. The real question is: why couldn’t the camera handle it?)
  • RAM is cheap. Like $10 for a 1GB DIMM. I doubt cameras have DDR2 DIMMs, but why can I only take a couple shots in rapid succession before I have to wait for the camera to write things out to the card? On the flagship model, give us a crazy-huge buffer.
  • For the love of God, give us an LCD that we can see when we’re working outside. And while you’re at it, spend the money on a great LCD. Look at an iPhone screen for a while, in fact, and see what 150 dpi looks like.

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