A Blog

A Manual, Digital Camera?

October 09, 2009

One of the more revered basic film SLR’s is the Nikon FM2. Same goes for some of the older Canon AE-1 or the ubiquitous student camera, the Pentax K1000. Unfortunately today, there isn’t really a “student” Digital SLR out there. Even the cheapest ones have all kinds of automatic bells and whistles and that don’t make it easy to actually learn about photography.

So, I had an idea. I don’t know if it is feasible or not, just wanted to flesh it out through writing. Would it be possible to create a cheap DSLR, that has no frills and focuses on the basics: shutter, aperture, and focus. Would it be possible to build one and aim it at students and price it around or even under $200?

Since I’m a Nikon user, I’ll be sticking with their tech, but I don’t have any reason to believe you couldn’t do this via Canon, Sony, or whomever.

Body: something small, perhaps reuse the recently discontinued D40 chassis. There’s no real need to come up with something brand spanking new (and it would keep the cost down).

Sensor: Since this would be aimed at students, there is no need for a full frame 20+ megapixel uber-sensor. In fact, you could even reuse the aforementioned D40 sensor, at 6 megapixels, it should be cheap enough to manufacture. Or you could even go with something even older, the 4 megapixel sensor from the D2Hs. Yeah, it’s tiny compared to what’s out there today, but will still do 8x10’s just fine.

Controls: KISS. Traditionally in film days, aperture was set on the lens. However, all new Nikon lenses are the G-type ones, with no aperture ring. Since it would be silly to preclude all of the newest and best lenses, you’d still need to be able to set aperture on the body. Unfortunately, this might raise the cost of production, but the tradeoff is just too much in my opinion.

As for shutter, just the standard dial should be fine. Same goes for ISO, full stops from 200-1600 (or higher). Metering should also be kept simple. Older cameras stuck with a center weighted meter, which makes sense to me.

Shooting modes area little bit trickier. I’m inclined to just stick Manual on there, and force users to learn the relationship between Aperture and Shutter and all that stuff. However, I could be persuaded to include Aperture Priority as well. Based on the controls already described, I don’t think it would be a problem, and would appeal to a wider range of customers.

Focus: Manual focus. No need for a motor driven, or electronic AF system. This will reduce the complexity and cost significantly. Yes, the newest AF systems are awesome (I especially love it on my D300), but again, if we want to keep it simple and cheap, it’ll have to go. Removing an AF system will remove the need for many more controls and menu systems.

Screen: Here’s the controversial part: skip it. This would be the biggest throwback to the film era; the inability to view images until they are “developed.” The screen is also one of the more expensive pieces to manufacture. A basic black and white LCD on the top would be suitable enough to provide basic information.  Additionally, it would reduce the complexity significantly. No menu systems to get lost in, no obscure settings, and nothing to get in the way with the basics of exposure.

Flash: Again, skip it. Throw a hot shoe on there so that if needed, lights could be added, but beginners and students don’t need to deal with a crummy pop-up flash to begin with anyways.

So, would that be enough? Am I forgetting something important? I think with those parts, you could easily fit it in under $200. Call it the Nikon DM, and most camera aficionado would get the point. Crap I’d bet that if it were light enough, a lot of pros would pick one up too just to carry around.

Scott Williams

Written by Scott Williams who lives and works in sunny Phoenix, AZ. Twitter is also a place.