Form and function. The form factor of many every day items is determined by their function. Because the end use rarely changes, often it is only when the components used in their construction evolve that we see any real paradigm shift in design. Some things never change, because the design has reached the end of the evolutionary road. Anybody care to invent a new hammer?
The camera is a classic example of this. The design and ergonomics of the first 35mm SLR (determined by the film transport, mirror box and lens mount) continues in use today with digital SLR cameras. Giugiaro, the iconic Italian designer of cars and pasta, has designed for Nikon since the F3, launched thirty years ago. In the eighties Canon went all smooth and curvy. Yet despite the refinements in contemporary industrial design and ergonomic awareness, the form factor remains almost unchanged since the birth of the 35mm SLR.
When photography switched from using film to digital sensors, camera manufacturers made electronic versions of their existing designs. Despite having a completely new way of working, manufacturers have persisted with the traditional layout. Now however, that could all be about to change.
Olympus saw it differently. Having been left behind with the introduction of auto focus cameras, their glory days were far behind them, as the legendary OM system faded into history. Without the constraints of a legacy system to maintain, they produced an entirely new system, and called it four thirds.
Allow me to divert your attention for a brief moment. You will no doubt be familiar with a certain German manufacturer of uber quality cameras, wearing a little red dot. Have you ever wondered just why the lens quality is so good? Part of it is down to the quality of design and construction. But the fact that it is a rangefinder gives it a head start. That mirror box assembly and reflex design used to make your SLR so flexible actually compromises the quality of the lens design. Take that away and the design of smaller, lighter and more efficient optics is within your grasp.
Now, Olympus and Panasonic together have taken another look at the four thirds design, and introduced a second system. This time, they have taken away the mirror box assembly, allowing them to take advantage of a purer non-reflex lens design. This shift also allows small, slimmer cameras and lenses to be produced. Initial results look to be very promising, not just matching, but in some cases exceeding the quality of existing digital SLR systems.
To date, no micro four thirds camera uses an optical viewfinder, partly because the target audience are experienced using LCD screens on mobile phones and compact cameras. Even so, we have yet to see any truly revolutionary designs for this system. There is no reason why we couldn’t. Given some well thought out industrial design, micro four thirds could provide us with a whole new way of looking at – and capturing – the world around us.