Although I don't drink, I have been seduced by champagne – that is, champagne-coloured aluminum. Last year  I was heading to New York to cover the Gay Games for the Village Voice and needed a camera for my own snapshots. I figured I couldn't get the hang of a "complicated" single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera – the kind real photographers use – in the short leadtime I had, so, after researching the alternatives, I settled on a Canon Z115, a small, light "point-and-shoot" camera with a panoply of electronic features and a very chic champagne-coloured aluminum exterior.
While I've been happy with the camera, I began to wonder about these "basic" point-and-shoots. Like the original Kodak Instamatic of 1963 (designed by Kodak and Pentagram), these cameras are supposed to live up to their billing: You grab the machine, point it at your subject, press the shutter button, and you're done. But if point-and-shoots are intended to be easy and economical, why do good ones cost anywhere from $400 to $1,200 and come equipped with so many of the features of a contemporary SLR? If you're going to shell out half a grand for an electronic camera, why opt for a point-and-shoot (P&S) rather than an SLR? The answer, it turns out, turns on a combination of sophisticated industrial design, effective marketing, and consumer technophobia.
Designheads can point to some notable milestones in camera design. Peripatetic Italian designer Luigi Colani drew a camera for Canon, the T90, which echoed his signature curvaceous style; as I.D. averred, "Colani's organic form was a revolution, but... Canon's camera lost market share." (Other Colani Canons.) The foldable, flask-like Polaroid SX-70 shattered preconceptions of boxy instant-camera design. Industrial-design enthusiasts today, however, will be disappointed at the new crop of high-end point-and-shoots. In the main, point-and-shoot industrial design these days involves tweaking the configuration of universal features like controls and information displays; there is no new overweening "design language" at play comparable to the work of Colani, or even comparable to David Carson or Neville Brody in the graphic-design world.
Or rather, the design language is one shared by all makers, with minor deviances – industrial-design fillips used as a means of product differentiation within and between brands. Meanwhile, new hybrid cameras are spanning the design gap between point-and-shoots and SLRs, with unusual feature combinations and, in some cases, aggressively retro case designs.
Point-and-shoots are by far the most popular camera format today. Figures from the Photo Marketing Association show that, in 1983, 35mm SLRs and non-SLRs had roughly equal sales – 2.2 million and 2.3 million units, respectively. But by 1993, shipments of non-SLR 35mm cameras had soared to 10.1 million units a year compared to a mere 700,000 SLRs. At the same time, sales of very-low-end 110mm and 126mm cameras – the point-and-shoot cameras of the '70s and '80s – shrunk from 3.5 million to 2.4 million. The 35mm format, once the province of "serious amateurs" and professional photographers, had reached the mainstream.
Miniaturization of components is, of course, a much more advanced science today than in 1983, when SLRs and point-and-shoots were equally popular. That permits smaller cameras with more features than before – not atypical of '90s design by any means. Point-and-shoots usually handle every niggly photo detail automatically, from aperture to shutter speed to variable flash to automatically sensing film speed – a far cry from the Instamatics of yore, with their fixed focal length and all-or-nothing flash (via disposable flashcubes). However, those features are available on today's SLRs, too, which offer the advantage of interchangeable lenses and through-the-lens viewfinders, not to mention a vastly broader range of settings. Why have consumers shown such loyalty to point-and-shoots?
Dan Richards, a senior editor at Popular Photography who writes a monthly column on point-and-shoots, sees three classes of buyer: "People who are not interested in photography as a craft," "the gadget freaks – the people who want every cotton-picking widget on the camera they can have," and "people who are serious photography enthusiasts who have SLRs and various lenses but who are looking for an easy camera to stick in their pocket or keep in the car or to always have with them at some point."
Point-and-shoots, says Richards, "represent the tools of photographic folk art," by which he means family snapshots, vacation pictures, and the like. The new breed of highly-capable point-and-shoots, then, appeal to "people for whom pictures are a way of documenting their own lives for themselves. The point-and-shoot camera has enabled that whole huge segment of the population to take much better pictures in terms of technical quality and in a wider variety of circumstances."
However, P&S cameras offer a lesson in tradeoff ergonomics. By purchasing a point-and-shoot, you forgo the kind of SLR versatility (changing a lens, say, or adding a filter) you might find handy at a later time in exchange for immediate ease of use. And the fact is that, while the new point-and-shoots can indeed handle a range of shooting conditions, you still need a modicum of photographic knowledge to actually recognize unusual shooting conditions, and in some cases it's necessary to fiddle with the controls of your "simple" point-and-shoot camera to ensure a correctly-exposed picture.
To turn my Canon Z115's flash off, for example, I have to open a little spring-loaded door on the camera's back and press a tiny inset button three times (gloves are no good here), watching a dim LCD for the appearance of the icon that denotes "no flash" (bar dexter through an encircled bolt of lightning). That's about the same rigamarole an electronic SLR would put me through. If the necessity of these settings were explained to potential buyers, wouldn't more of them opt for an SLR?
Herbert Keppler, publishing director of Hachette Publishing's two camera magazines, Popular Photography and American Photographer, diagnoses the problem thus: "It's very simple. In order to run an SLR, people feel they have to know a lot of things – shutter speed, apertures, and so forth and so on. They perceive the point-and-shoot camera as simple to run. I'm not saying it is. I'm just saying that's how it's perceived.... $300 and $400 cameras are really pretty complex by the time they get up to that [level], as far as modes go – but no matter what they have, they almost never have shutter speeds and apertures, which frighten the hell out of people.
"If the truth be known, it would probably be much easier to run a single-lens reflex than one of these elaborate point-and-shoot cameras. The difference is that the people who make point-and-shoot cameras are the same people who make single-lens-reflex cameras. They are afraid that if they say, 'Look at what the SLR can do and what the point-and-shoot can't' – with interchangeable lenses and so on – that they'd damage the sales of point-and-shoots. If you give them a $400 point-and-shoot, all in one box – bang, you're rid of them. Out the door."
The boom in point-and-shoots in the 1990s offers a study in contrasts: Canon and Samsung have both produced P&S cameras that push the design envelope, as it were – but with radically different levels of daring.
Canon’s Photura 135, which rather resembles an outsized camera lens with a flip-out flash tacked on, received a Best of Category award in I.D.‘s 1991 Design Review. With its 135mm zoom capacity and relatively fast lens (f/3.2-8), not to mention an innovative film-transport system necessitated by the tubular design, the Photura backed up its offbeat looks with top-of-the-line technology. Yet, as Keppler recalls, “people generally like a camera to look like a camera, and even when the Japanese representative of Canon showed the camera for the first time, he was a little embarrassed and said, ‘Look, a beer mug!’” (The flash rotates 180 degrees from its lens-covering position, rather like the lid of a beer stein.)
Though Canon released a slightly-updated model about a year after the Photura’s début, the camera did not take the world by storm (“It did adequately well,” says Keppler; “it wasn’t an inexpensive camera, and people who buy cameras are to some extent conservative”), and Canon has not altered its subsequent cameras to fit the Photura mold. “35mm cameras have maintained that very similar design to the original for going on 70 years,” observes Dan Richards, “and maybe what that indicates is that the original design was pretty good – shutter button on your right index finger, a boxy shape you can cradle in your left hand, and so forth. Maybe it’s just that cameras were the type of object that you become comfortable with a fairly conventional layout [for].”
For Korean industrial juggernaut Samsung, point-and-shoots are their only camera line. The product of a collaboration between Porsche Design and Samsung’s in-house team in Korea, Samsung’s ECX 1, introduced last year, has something of a Mickey Mouse-ears look, with its twin circular autofocus windows perched atop a 140mm zoom lens.
“I think that camera has a selling point,” says Richards, “in that it is so far out and so off the edge in terms of typical camera design, it gets buyers who might not ordinarily consider it. The design is unique in the original sense of the word. There is nothing quite like it. It’s also helped put Samsung on the map, because Samsung was a camera company that was very derivative, and still is. They tended to go with tried-and-true designs. The Japanese makers have succeeded with, and they adhere very closely to, that style of very conservatively-designed cameras. The ECX 1 was a blast out of left field, so to speak, and it’s helped Samsung’s name recognition and place in the marketplace.”
While designers at Samsung and Porsche Design could not be reached for this article after repeated attempts, Gene Soyka, VP of photo sales at Samsung Opto-Electronics America Inc., says, “We’re looking at this particular product, the ECX 1, as establishing Samsung as an innovator. It’s the first camera that we’ve been able to come out with that has actually surpassed the Japanese in terms of specifications, which is, you know, a big thing for them.” (Nikon has since matched the ECX 1’s biggest feature, its 140mm zoom.) Samsung’s U.S. camera sales were $50 million in 1994 and have been doubling annually. The hope, Soyka says, is “establishing a whole new image. Image has a lot to do with this, and that’s why we brought Porsche into this. When you think of Porsche, you think of quality, design, and everything else.”
However, if you “think of design” when it comes to cameras you’ll notice the increasingly blurry lines dividing point-and-shoots from SLRs and from other genres of camera. The canonical distinctions between SLRs and point-and-shoots would seem to be the means of composing the picture (SLRs do so through the lens; point-and-shoots use a separate viewfinder) and the range of possible lenses (SLRs’ are interchangeable; P&S lenses, though usually endowed with zoom capability, are not removable). Cameras like the Z115, the Photura, and the ECX 1 are squarely situated in the point-and-shoot camp. But a number of other models could be seen as photographic centaurs, appropriating features from both camps – for example, the Contax G1 and Olympus IS-3 (see sidebars).
While those three cameramakers adamantly object to their models’ being called point-and-shoots, the fact is that they can be used in no-brainer mode, and it’s here that the siren call of the non-SLR sounds the strangest. Why shell out more than a grand on, say, a Contax G1, with its extensive customizability and near-SLR capabilities, when you could buy a real SLR (or two of them) and be done with it? And aren’t features like titanium skins, also found on the “supreme-class” Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti, the camera equivalent of Gore-Tex – functionally equivalent to lesser materials (steel and plastic in cameras, nylon in clothing) but more desirable and recherché?
“There’s always a market for high-end photography that’s easy to use,” observes Joseph Meehan, author of some ten books on photography and technical and new-products editor at trade magazine Photo District News. “They represent a specific class of cameras – very easy to carry around, and yet they’ll deliver the image quality of the best SLRs.” In the Contax model’s case, “the G1 has caused really an uproar. They’re packing them in at the shows, so to speak. And the lenses are what’s really making it with that camera,” he says, referring to the renowned Carl Zeiss lenses for which Contax parent corporation Kyocera has marketing and manufacturing rights.
“I think there’s the assumption that if it’s very expensive and of the highest quality that it’s not going to sell. That’s not true. Certain types of equipment will sell because it provides the professional or the serious amateur with quality they’re willing to pay for.”
“These aren’t necessarily people who are photography-driven, I think,” says Richards. “It is another gadget.... The fact that it takes pictures is almost ancillary to the question.”
Keppler explains: “We went from a point of view that all [classy, serious] cameras were chrome to a point of view that all cameras were black. Now we’re working our way back the other way [so] that chrome means precision, chrome means expense.” The Contax G1, he declares, “is certainly a collectible. It looks very, very expensive, and it’s less expensive than it looks. What sells it is the precision feel, the precision look of it.
“The difference is between looking at [a high-end camera] and saying ‘that’s an optical instrument’ and looking at it and saying ‘that’s a kitchen appliance.’ [The G1] is a piece of jewelry.” Drawing a comparison to a stylistic antecedent of the G1, Keppler concludes, “I always wanted to have a Leica M6, just to look at it, just to hear its shutter, see its perfect registration of leather and chrome, knowing that it has the best insides even though the newer cameras are more accurate.” But, he suggests, a more plain camera can do the job just as well – “and you can always have diamonds put on.”
Originally published 1995 7 Updated here 1999.06.28, 2007.03.19