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Why are some cameras so big?

There is a real trend toward manufacturing small but fully capable cameras at the moment, and it’s not hard to see what makes them so successful; one look at the micro four thirds system or Fujifilm’s current crop of devices reveals an alternative to those who are tired of hauling excessive weight around. But small cameras are not something new; my first acquaintance with a fully-fledged SLR of diminutive proportions was the Olympus OM1n. At the time, other manufacturers such as Pentax were also offering similar size models (the MX and ME are two that immediately spring to mind). Of course, smaller bodies need smaller system components to make the idea truly work, giving rise to a plethora of diminutive lenses, winders and flashguns.

Smaller systems were often marketed toward the traveller, or the photographer who simply wanted to lighten their load without compromising the system. When I first became serious about photography, I was immediately attracted to Pentax and Olympus because I wanted a small SLR that was every bit as rugged as their bloated competitors. Even today, size (or lack of) is key to my choice of camera I purchase, so it is good that this philosophy has been maintained with modern counterparts such as what is offered by the M4/3 consortium, Fuji and Leica.

If a small system camera can offer equivalent functionality to that of larger ones, why did the larger ones not die out decades ago? I must admit this is a question that continues to perplex me. OK there are inescapable laws of physics when designing super-fast zoom and telephoto lenses, the specification of which determines their large size. But the overall mass of camera body and some peripherals could still be reduced. Just because one component needs to be large does not mean an entire system should be designed in similar fashion.

A few years ago I read an article about the Olympus E-3, part of which was an interview with the designers. One of the questions was about its size, and why it was not made smaller, given the reduced size of the Four Thirds sensor. Weather sealing and telecentricity aside, one of the comments made was that it was being marketed as a professional model, therefore needed to look big in order to compete in this sector. Yes, it could have been made significantly smaller (smaller than the E-1), but would not have carried its intended status as well had this been the case.

So from this, I can make assumptions that a larger camera is perceived as being better – better being professional. My opinion is further bolstered by a forum thread I followed a couple of years ago regarding a wedding shoot; the bride had noticed that a brand other than Canon was being used and was not too happy. I do not recall what camera the photographer brandished, but its small size was what had drawn the bride’s attention to it. Is a small camera not deemed a professional tool? If so, what makes a camera ‘professional’? Top of the list has to be reliability – an ability to perform flawlessly in all situations. And there are dozens of other attributes, such as weather sealing, image quality, speed, quietness etc. that can be applied. The term ‘professional’ is a sum of these and many more parts. But when I look at today’s market, many smaller models fit this bill – case in point is the Fuji X-Pro 1, or Olympus’ OM-D ; two more than capable picture taking machines and every bit as good as larger alternatives.

Several years ago, I broke with tradition and acquired my first (and only) Canon EOS model (10D). It was a complete departure for me, and was preceded by the almost as large Olympus E-1. Getting into professional photography almost demanded I had this, a couple of flashguns and a few lenses in my arsenal. Big mistake; the camera was huge, heavy and grotesque, making field trips a real misery. And the lenses were equally as large; the 20mm f2.8 was a bloated joke when put next to my Zuiko 21mm F2. And as time went by, back focus issues with certain lenses became apparent. And the RAW files took a lot of work. The system was soon relegated to studio and product photography work only, where it could be left in situ on a tripod. Soon after this it was sold to finance a more portable solution.

So for me the reason to carry a large camera will be eternally perplexing. At the last NEC Photography Show I attended and tried out the latest Canikon offerings. Impressive as their specifications were I could not help be underwhelmed by their enormous and loud footprint, and was left with an impression that their size could be greatly reduced to make something far more portable without compromising their specification.

And then I heard the siren song of the OM-D calling…