Having spent quite a bit of time talking to many other photographers, one of the discussions that comes up every once in a while has to do with a “perfect camera”, one that does everything you need. I have been thinking about such camera for a while now and I think I have figured out what would be an ideal choice for me personally – it would be a modular camera. While the concept of a modular camera is certainly not new and we can see a living example of it in Red video cameras, those are largely not relevant to photography for high cost reasons alone. What I have in mind is a modular camera that is primarily aimed at capturing stills, but could also be potentially used for shooting videos, and not the other way around. The point of a modular camera is to be able to serve different needs, from consumer to professional, at varying costs depending on the requirements of the photographer. One should be able to afford the most basic modular camera with a smaller sensor at a comparable price to a modern DSLR or a mirrorless camera, while professional photographers should be able to customize their modular camera with say a medium format sensor, fast processor, high capacity battery and other tools / accessories they need. Like the idea? Let’s take a look at this concept in more detail.
Table of Contents
Truly Modular Design
A modular camera should be something that you will buy into once as a system and not think about replacing it every year. When you buy a lens, you always think of it as an investment, as something you will be using in future cameras. The same idea lies with a modular design. Some components will require initial investment, but once you buy them, only certain components (such as the image sensor module, see below) will be considered for future upgrades – the rest will stay to serve your needs for many years. Most working modular systems I have seen to date require buying the “main” module, which is the most expensive part of the camera. That main module has a certain fixed lens mount, certain sensor size, processor and other components / connectors. Basically, a lot of stuff crammed into a single module. The rest of the modules then become mostly “accessory” modules for handling grips, batteries and other accessories.
The way I envision a truly modular camera design is a bit different. Instead of cramming everything into a single module, forcing a particular lens mount and using other modules for accessorizing the camera, the point of a modular design should be to allow for much more flexibility and freedom. I should be able to start with a smaller sensor, say Micro 4/3 or APS-C and be able to go all the way to Medium Format (MF) when I can afford it. I should be able to own multiple sensors with different characteristics. Perhaps a 12 MP super low-light full-frame (FF) sensor, a 24 MP general purpose FF sensor and a 50 MP super high resolution FF or MF sensor for landscape / architecture / studio / macro work. Depending on what I am doing, I should be able to swap sensors by simply replacing the module.
All modules will be “snap-on” modules that will securely connect with each other through the same connection system. There will be rubber gaskets between each module to have a weather-resistant design. Each module will have high-speed connection pins for communication and will feature a small microchip to identify itself to the main sensor / processing module.
Let’s start out with the lens mount.
1) Lens Module: Support for any lens mount
It should not matter whether one owns Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax or any other brand lenses – all of them should be usable on the Camera Modulara. And the image circle that a lens covers should not matter either – one should be able to mount everything from Micro 4/3 to medium format lenses. How is this going to be possible? The first module, which will be used to mount lenses will come in different sizes and lengths. For DSLR and medium format lenses that require long flange distance, the first module will be a bit thick, while mirrorless mounts will be much thinner. Depending on what mount is used, there will be native connectors to talk to Canon, Nikon and other brand lenses. As there will be no support from manufacturers, lens communication will have to be reverse-engineered with an open platform (more on this later) for each brand. The rear end of the lens module will feature a shutter mechanism. There will also be a standard flash socket in this module for external speedlights and infrared / radio triggers.
2) Image Sensor / Main Module: Support for different sensor sizes
The second module will be the image sensor / main module. This will be obviously the most important module that will have both the imaging sensor and the central processing unit / image processor. This is where all the magic will be captured and processed. Here are the sensor sizes that could be offered:
- 1″ or Micro Four Thirds: with such small sensors and little need for high processing power, the cost of this module will be the lowest, primarily aiming at beginners and enthusiasts that want to start out small. It will also be a pretty thin module. Coupled with a thin lens module, a small battery module and a back LCD module, it will make a small and lightweight camera.
- APS-C: for those who want to get into bigger and better, APS-C will work great for most needs. Should be a good 16-24 MP general purpose APS-C sensor with great dynamic range and ISO performance. This one will be a bit bigger in size, but not necessarily thicker than the first option.
- 35mm / Full-Frame: enthusiasts and professionals wanting more pixels or great ISO performance will opt for a 35mm / full-frame sensor module. Several different types of this module could be offered:
- 10-12 MP: a low-light sensor with large pixels with amazing high ISO performance. Will allow for super fast frame rates for sports and wildlife photography.
- 16-24 MP: a general purpose sensor for most photography needs. Will also be great for sports and wildlife, although frame rates will be a bit lower than on the 12 MP module.
- 36-50 MP: for those who want a high resolution sensor for landscape / architecture / macro / studio work.
- Medium Format: those who can afford to go bigger might want to choose medium format. Sensor resolution will start from 50 MP. This will be the thickest and the heaviest module and will be the most expensive.
The image sensor in this module will be exposed and will allow for easy access and cleaning. All sensors will feature a regular sensor filter stack in front of them for UV protection, but the filter stack will be removable / changeable to allow putting different types of filters. Some might want a low-pass / AA filter for dealing with moire, while others might want to get an infrared filter for infrared photography. The sensor will move to compensate for motion, thanks to its 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS), so the filter stack will be a part of that design. Another idea is to be able to insert ND filters right in front of the sensor – perhaps a small slider that goes in front of the sensor that can be moved up / down from the side of the module? Light leaks could be an issue though, so this has to be designed carefully.
The sensor will feature additional pixels for phase detection autofocus, but contrast detect will also kick in when phase detection fails.
Since data from the sensor must be processed very quickly, the camera processor(s) and internal memory will also reside in this module. Small sensors should feature a single processor and little buffer memory, while full-frame and medium format sensors should feature powerful processor(s) and lots of buffer memory. This will obviously make the main module vary greatly in price – it could go from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what sensor, processing engine and buffer the module will feature.
3) Memory Card and Battery Module
The next module will be the memory card and battery module. Depending on the needs, one should be able to go from a small and thin module featuring a single or dual SD card slot(s) and a little bit of battery power, all the way to CF / XQD card support with a lots of battery juice. The more battery power, the thicker and the heavier the module. Another idea is to allow to stack additional battery modules for even more battery life.
The last module is where the LCD screen, viewfinder and button control modules will reside. There should be two versions of this module – a simplistic and cheap version for small sensor systems without a built-in viewfinder and a much more complex module with a high resolution Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), lots of customizable buttons and dials for direct access to features and functions of the camera (for enthusiasts and professionals). The LCD screen should be a swivel / flip-screen with at least 3 inches in diameter, 1 million dots and higher resolution.
There could be other features added to this module, including GPS and WiFi. External connectors for microphone, HDMI and USB will also be in this module.
Open Source Operating System and Loadable Software Modules / Modifications
A complex camera like this should be fully open, to allow the community to not only participate in the development of the platform, but also create loadable software modules and modifications for specialized use. The menu system should be easy to navigate through, but complex operations should be allowed from customized options.
AF system should be highly customizable and very fast. Native support for all brands will be tough to achieve, but not impossible. Since the platform will be open, people will contribute and offer tweaks for better AF reliability. Best to start out with at least one manufacturer fully supported for AF operation and go from there. Features like focus peaking, interpolation-free live view, built-in software level, on-screen notifications / overlays and electronic front-curtain shutter should be provided at launch. Also, built-in support for HDR, timelapse, panoramas, etc. True 14+ bit RAW images, RAW histograms, hyperfocal distance estimator / calculator and much more. The possibilities with an open platform are literally endless!
The shutter should be near silent and practically vibration-free. Electronic front-curtain should be enabled by default and the shutter is there only for super fast action sequences. With full-frame sensor main module and fast processor(s), 4K+ video recording should also be available. There should be a mode for fully silent image capture without engaging the shutter mechanism – at least a straight capture from the live view screen (4K minimum resolution).
Each module should be made from tough material like magnesium alloy, but cheaper modules could also be plastic or a mixture of plastic and carbon fiber. High-end modules should be weather sealed.
Ergonomics are extremely important. The somewhat square design of the camera should allow to mount a grip on either side of the camera. Grips should be customizable and have a simple mount to allow third party manufacturers to create grips of different shapes and sizes. Although I listed four modules above and the camera in the image looks pretty thick, there should be a way to make the camera small and lightweight, perhaps by combining several modules into one (memory card / battery + viewfinder / lcd). Low-end modules with small sensors could be combined into a single module, making a camera that is just a tad bigger than modern mirrorless cameras. Once this modular system is in place, there will be all kinds of opportunities for different options, sizes and ergonomics.
Price will vary depending on what you want. A good setup with an APS-C sensor should not exceed $1000, preferably stay below that price point. A full-frame setup should cost between $2K an $5K depending on options and sensor type / processing power. It would be nice to be able to offer a medium format CMOS setup at $5-7K.
What are your thoughts about such a camera? Would you buy it if it were available? How much would you be willing to pay for such a camera? I would love to hear your opinion!