It has occurred to me that today's digital cameras have a lot in common with the first automobiles, and that there are some important lessons to be learned from that comparison.
Back around the beginning of the last century, cars didn't look much like cars. They looked more like horse-drawn carriages without the horse. And that was, in fact, what people called them: horseless carriages. Designing the first automobiles in such a fashion made a certain degree of sense. After all, horse-drawn carriages had been around for millennia, going all the way back to the Roman Empire and perhaps even farther. The design and science of the horse carriage had been honed to perfection, within the limits of the materials and technologies available. It was only logical to use that same time-honored design when horses became expendable as a means of propulsion by the invention of the internal combustion engine. Early engines, actually, weren't a bad match for a carriage. Anyone who has been to a county fair has likely seen some of those old chugger engines on display or in operation. They were crude and simple, something that any good smithy could repair or perhaps even make. Just like a carriage.
Over the years, of course, it became obvious that there's quite a bit of a difference between a carriage pulled by a horse and one powered by a motor. As a result, automotive design quickly evolved along a separate path and the horseless carriage became cars built for and around the capabilities and requirements of the internal combustion engine. Today, all a car and a horse carriage have in common is that both have wheels and both are built to transport goods and people.
The current state of affairs with digital cameras is amazingly reminiscent of those early horseless carriages. They are filmless cameras more so than digital cameras. Much like automotive pioneers made do with an earlier technology as a vessel for their new invention, digital camera pioneers make do with the bodies and conventions of film cameras. Just like a crude engine replaced the horse in a horseless carriage, a CCD and related electronics replace the film in a filmless camera. When you take a look at the majority of the digital cameras on the market today, most are virtually indistinguishable from film cameras. I find that very strange and very short-sighted.
I am not sure if manufacturers simply took the easy way out by plopping the new technology into the same old cameras, or whether they feared the wrath of film diehards, some of whom tend to get hugely upset if you question any aspect of their time-honored rituals and traditions.
If the way cars developed is any indication, the current breed of filmless cameras will soon look as quaintly primitive and ill-conceived as the first horseless carriages. In time, vendors will realize what digital camera enthusiasts have known since the start: All a film camera and a digital camera have in common is that both use a lens mechanism to take pictures. That's it. Everything else is different. Any attempt to say it ain't so doesn't wash. Swiss watchmakers had to come to the painful realization that even their most perfect creations weren't a match for the perfect accuracy of a digital watch costing a small fraction of a conventional clockwork mechanism. Similarly, decades of honing conventional cameras to where they provided complete and total control over every mechanical aspect of a film camera, decades of research in pursuit of the perfect film, and all those thousands of hours mastering apertures and exposures and lighting will soon mean very little or nothing at all. Even today, digital photographers shake their heads over the time their traditional counterparts waste in search of the perfect light, the perfect exposure, and the perfect background. They know that while a film camera pretty much made you live with whatever shot you took, an image taken with a digicam is just the raw material used to create the final picture. With a film camera, you're stuck with what you get when the shutter clicks. With a digital camera, the simulated click is just the beginning. Any image is the sum total of what the camera's CCD can capture and what you make of the picture later in Adobe Photoshop or whatever your favorite image manipulation tool is. With a film camera, the road to a good image is experience and a good deal of luck. With a digital camera it's mostly your talent and mastery of your software. What's better? In my book that question is really a no-brainer. Why spend a lot of time guessing about apertures and lighting and then relying on some one-hour photo lab when you can be in complete control of the entire process?
There is no doubt in my mind that digital imaging will quickly replace film. We'll all be better off for it, though it's entirely conceivable that film will live on for certain specialized functions or simply for the sentimental value of it. After all, it's still nice to take a romantic ride through the park with a loved one in a horse-drawn buggy.
All of this makes it quite frustrating to still have to deal with the camera equivalent of the horseless carriage. I wish at least some of the digicam manufacturers had the guts and vision to step outside the box and start afresh rather than adapting age-old film cameras for digital use. It is clearly time for tabula rasa, for a brand-new approach that starts and ends with a new and better technology. A CCD is to film as a combustion engine is to a horse: completely and totally different. Electronic imaging has different requirements, different strengths, different packaging, a different interface. It makes no sense to shoehorn this new technology into the old box. What we need is for someone to sit down and think this through, from A to Z. Ditch all conventions and think what a digital camera should be like. And, more importantly, what it should not.
Once that's done--and it will be done--we'll have digicams that will be infinitely better than today's generation of filmless cameras. They also will likely be as different from a film camera as a modern car is from a carriage. But they will be built from the ground up around the digital imaging process, and not around the requirements and limitations of film. Only then will we have truly digital cameras.