Friday, February 22, 2013

Top Five Fridays: Most influential interchangeable lens cameras of the past decade

Another Friday, another countdown. This week it's what I consider to be the five digital camera bodies that left the biggest imprint on the industry. This isn't a countdown of 'best' camera bodies, but those that exerted their influence in the industry. I say 'influential' in a fairly literal way, meaning those bodies that introduce features or characteristics which were imitated and duplicated in other future bodies down the road. They don't necessarily have to do these things first - they could just popularize whichever important features they brought to the table. In other words, some aspect of these 5 bodies is seen in many cameras to this day.

I'm narrowing the scope of this countdown to the last decade for a pretty simple reason, and that's to allow me to disregard most of the industry 'firsts' that came to define their class, like the Nikon D1, Canon D30, Canon 1Ds etc. Anyway, here they are:

5. Canon 20D
Canon Museum
Before the 20D came out, enthusiast/semi-pro bodies had fairly weak performance specs, but decent build quality. They topped out at 3 frames per second, and had mediocre autofocus systems that were carried over from lower-end film bodies. The 20D was different. It was the first non-flagship model to exceed 3fps, and with it came a new autofocus system made from the ground up that was clearly superior to what previous models offered. For the first time, a consumer-priced camera could almost match what professional models offered in terms of both specifications and image quality.

These were necessary changes, too. When the 300D and D70 were introduced in 2003/2004, something had to be done to the enthusiast models in order for them to be clearly superior to the new entry level models, and the 20D answered that call, as did the Nikon D200 shortly thereafter. Better still, with the spec jump enthusiast models made after the 20D, there was no longer a need to cripple entry-level models like the 300D, as was made apparent when the 350D was announced.

Influence seen in: every enthusiast DSLR to date

4. Canon 300D & Nikon D40
Canon Museum
Choosing between the two was proving to be a bit difficult, so why do they occupy the same spot on this countdown? Because they both did the same thing, but 3 years apart. Each body broke an important price barrier, mainly by making themselves a nerfed version of higher-end body - stripping them down to the bare essentials to appeal to a new market and make DSLRs more accessible to the masses.

In the case of the 300D, it was the first DSLR kit to launch below $1000, a price so low compared to other bodies available at the time it had some of its software features crippled significantly (forced AI Focus in PASM, no custom functions, shallow buffer etc) in order to differentiate it. However, it had all the basics there, like the same framerate and resolution as the 10D, and even added new features like the EF-S mount and a DIGIC processor.

The D40 did a similar thing in 2006, launching at $599 w/kit lens at a time when new entry-level bodies had pretty much settled at $900, and again, the D40 was stripped down to the bare essentials in order to do this. Three-point AF, 6 mp resolution, and a low framerate. But just like the 300D it helped new users get their foot in the door without breaking the bank.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The Sony A850 tried to do the same thing for full-frame in 2009, and the Nikon D600 and Canon 6D are aiming for the same in 2012/2013.

Influence seen in: Canon XXXXD series, Nikon D3XXX series, entry-level mirrorless bodies

3. Olympus E-P1
By many accounts, the original Four Thirds system was a failure. It featured a smaller sensor and marginally smaller lenses than competitors, but that size advantage was of minimal use since bodies were still too large to fit in a jacket pocket or purse...the latter being of no consequence to me. When the Micro Four Thirds system launched with the Panasonic G1 in 2008, the system was finally looking like it was on the right track by realizing that the mirror wasn't entirely necessary for some applications anymore thanks to technological advances. But there was one nagging issue for some, the small sensor, small mount, and small lenses weren't being exploited too well because the first m4/3 bodies still followed the DSLR form-factor, with chunky grips, viewfinder humps, large pop-up flashes and the like.

The E-P1 fixed this, by giving the camera a rectangular rangefinder-style body that was devoid of bulbous protrusions, which, when combined with a small prime, could actually fit in a jacket pocket. Today every single mirrorless system (except perhaps Fuji...and obviously Leica) now offers at least one ultra-compact body and pancake lens.

Influence now seen in: All Olympus PEN bodies, Panasonic GF & GX series, Nikon 1 V series, EOS M, Pentax Q, Sony NEX 3/5 series, Samsung NX 

2. Canon 5D Mark II
Canon Museum
I had a bit of debate whether to fill this spot with the original 5D, or its successor. Although the original 5D created the compact full-frame digital category, and the first of its kind to be 'affordable'. But when the 5D Mark II was announced 3 years later, it improved upon the original in pretty much every important way, but it also brought along something that hadn't been in a digital interchangeable lens still camera, and that was HD video. It was fairly limited compared to what's been released in the last year or two, but it good enough to catch on and create demand for the feature strong enough to warrant its inclusion in virtually every ILC body made ever since.

But its importance in regards to video doesn't end there. The 5D Mark II represented what was by far the cheapest and easiest way for the masses to take large sensor video, and was even cheaper than dedicated interchangeable lens video cameras - and those had smaller sensors. Essentially what the 5D started was the video equivalent of the desktop publishing 'revolution' (hyperbole) of the 1980's.

1. Nikon D3
When it was announced in 2007, the D3 was pretty damn unique. Until that point, companies had their flagship digital bodies split into two categories: one focused on resolution and image quality (in the case of Canon this was also a full-frame body) and the other one focused on performance. Then the D3 came along as a jack-of-all-trades. Offering Nikon's top-rate 51 point Af system, 12mp (same as the then-current 5D) and 9fps and a full-frame sensor (a first for Nikon at the time), it offered the same resolution as the D2Xs, and a higher framerate than the D2Hs. I'd call that a pretty successful amalgamation of the two product lines.

So why is this #1 when everything else on this countdown has introduced something a little more accessible and widespread? Well, every other body listed here has already seen the maximum extent of its influence. Every body out there now has HD video capabilities, and all of the classes the others in this countdown helped create aren't going to expand any further in the future. Yet 6 years on, the combination of a full-frame sensor and performance is still in the process of trickling down the product lines and brands, and with it comes the greater potential for future impact.

Another important note, the D3 was also the first body to offer a rather insane expanded ISO range, where its ISO 25,600 greatly surpassed the ISO 6400 maximum that the next nearest competitor offered. Not to mention that the ISO 3200 max for consumer level bodies was stagnant prior to its release.These days bodies go up to 102, 400

Influence seen in: Sony A99, Canon 5D III & 1Dx, Nikon D600

Honourable mention:
Konica-Minolta 7D

The K-M 7D has mostly been forgotten by now, being the company's swan song before its DSLR assets were transferred to Sony in 2006. The body was pretty much in-line with its contemporaries though at a higher price. However it had one ace up its sleeve: in-body image stabilization that nearly matched the effectiveness of what in-lens systems of the era could offer.

After its introduction and continued use by Sony, Pentax and Olympus started offering this as a standard feature in their bodies. As a way to stay competitive, Canon and Nikon magically 'found a way' to offer image stabilization for (nearly) free on their kit lenses and some of their lower-end consumer zooms in 2008, while subsequently offering 4 and 5-stop systems in later years. You have the K-M 7D to thank for this.

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