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Weekend Wrap: The exorbitant cost of keeping it simple

Weekend Wrap: The exorbitant cost of keeping it simple

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An ironic observation or two about the sorry state of digital camera design and pricing

August 14, 2009

When we buy a digital camera, why do we pay so much for so little, but so little for so much?

When I was first starting out in photography, the Pentax Spotmatic, with its simple match-needle metering and low price, rocked my world. It accepted “universal” screw-mount lenses. You focused by turning a focusing ring. You changed the aperture by turning the aperture ring. You controlled the shutter speeds by turning a shutter speed dial.

Wanted to switch from color to black and white mode? Change the film. Wanted to zoom in? Sorry, they only made prime lenses at the time. Switch lenses.

For less than $200, the Pentax Spotmatic was one of the least expensive SLRs on the market at the time. No wonder it, and its successor the K1000 (shown), were among the most popular DSLRs ever sold.

Now, for the cost of a Pentax Spotmatic in 1970 dollars, you can buy a camera that fits in your shirt pocket, is controlled via a touch-sensitive LCD monitor and has no physical buttons, zooms from a sweeping-scenic-friendly wide angle to a paparazzi-friendly tele setting, identifies faces in a scene and automatically optimizes focus, exposure and color balance, locks up the camera until everyone’s smiling (and screams at you if someone blinks), fixes red-eye, shoots HD video at 30 frames per second, connects wirelessly with the Internet, and accepts memory cards that hold thousands of full-resolution images but cost about the same as a single roll of 35mm color print film with processing. The camera has special settings that give you perfect exposures when shooting the beach or snow, scampering pets, sports, portraits at night, or macro shots an inch from the front of the lens. Heck, the camera even figures out which of these special settings is right and chooses the best one for you, because it knows better.

Heaven help you if you wanted to set the aperture or shutter speed, or focus manually.

“Sure, our latest ZZ-103K04.3 has manual exposure and focus control,” Mr. Manufacturer PR Flack might respond. “Just go into Menu, choose user controls, burrow five levels down and voila, there’s your manual control override.”

Or: “This thumbwheel controls aperture when in “M” mode, and to switch the shutter speeds simply press the “Fnct” button while whistling the first bars of Dixie. To focus, press the “D” button while moving the spinning doodad, and confirm focus by looking at the enlarged image in the LCD that you can’t make out in bright sunlight. Simple as pie. Hey lookit! We’ve got a version of this camera in Cherry Red!”

That’s the “manual control” you get for $200 or less. Don’t believe me? Look at the new camera descriptions we've posted on the Adorama News Desk over the past couple of months, or just pick up a new gee-whiz P&S and try to find manual controls without consulting a manual. I’m not exaggerating. Much.

Want to focus using a focusing ring, switch aperture by turning an aperture ring, and change the shutter speed via a shutter speed dial? Be prepared to pony up $4,000 or more for a Leica M8. It’s not even an SLR. That’s the only digital camera currently on the market today that gives you all of the operational simplicity of the sub-$200 Pentax Spotmatic.

And that’s ridiculous.

No, I’m not belittling the M8.
I've used it. It’s an amazing camera, built to the tightest standards in the universe. But would it kill manufacturers to make a low-cost, no-frills digital SLR with simple, physical manual controls that are main features, not hard-to-get-to overrides?

If the Pentax Spotmatic/K1000, with its minimal feature set, could be one of the biggest-selling cameras in the photo industry’s history and enjoy a 20-plus year run, my gut tells me there is still a market for a low-cost, true digital equivalent.

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