Why Aren’t Cameras More Like Bicycles?

My Baby

[tweetmeme]Mountain biking has been another one of my passionate hobbies (though I’ve drifted away from it in the last few years). But now that I’m back home in north Idaho, I’m anxious to get back in the saddle. In fact, this last weekend, I spent some time building a bike that has been long overdue.

I’m the type of rider who refuses to buy a complete bike. I like to do my research and buy each component individually, thus ending up with a custom bike that meets my wants/needs and falls within my budget. As I was piecing my bike together, I thought “why aren’t cameras more like bicycles?” Meaning, why aren’t more components on a camera interchangeable and replaceable?

Sure, the modern dSLR has interchangeable lenses, flashes, memory cards, and batteries… but that’s about it. You want more megapixels? How about a larger LCD? A different lens mount, perhaps? Your only choice is to buy a completely new camera body. And while you might get most of the features you want in that new body, there always seems to be something you liked better on the old body.

Leaving reality behind for a moment (we’ll come back to it in a second), wouldn’t it be nice to have a truly modular camera? Starting with a frame or skeleton, you could add components to build your camera from the ground up. This sensor, that lens mount, this LCD, that control panel, this processor/computer, that hotshoe, this memory card slot, that viewfinder, etc. Essentially, you could replace only pieces of the camera that are broken or outdated. And if you have some cash to burn, why not go for some upgrades?

Now back to reality. Modern digital cameras are highly complex electro-optical-mechanical systems packed into a very tiny box. Modularizing key components would probably take some extra space and increase overall cost for the camera. Not to mention that interfaces and package dimensions would need to be standardized to allow for the swapping of parts — this would probably be impossible to achieve between different camera manufacturers.

While it may be easy to sit back and compare cameras to bicycles, the truth of the matter is that bicycles are relatively simple mechanical systems in very large packages. It may certainly be possible to create modular cameras, but the general market for such a thing is small.

As a matter of fact, there are a few modular camera systems out there. RED cameras are built on this concept, but they’re very expensive (and intended for shooting cinema rather than stills). The Ricoh GXR is sorta modular, but not entirely. In doing some research, I also found Alpha brand cameras that are built for modular exchange of parts. And of course, many large format film cameras are quite modular (which makes sense based on their size alone).

Does anybody else out there wish that cameras were more modular? Are you the type of photographer that would build something from the ground up rather than buy it off the shelf in final form? What other problems do modular cameras face?

10 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Cameras More Like Bicycles?

  1. K. Praslowicz

    This is pretty much the case with Large Format equipment as their complexity is vastly simpler compared to what is needed for a digital camera. But as you say, they have a small general market. They may cost a lot per frame, but I do love the simple pleasure of being able to build my own lens mounts and replace or upgrade parts with little more then a screwdriver.

  2. Greta S.

    I don’t really wish cameras were modular. I think they would cost more than they already are! My husband is like you…a die-hard mountain biker, and I’m the photog. He loves the trails in/around Atlanta!

  3. James Taylor

    I wouldn’t be able to afford multiple hobbies if cameras were more modular… Then again, I do wish I could borrow N*kon lenses to put on my Canon body…

  4. Janne

    I second the LF camera. Everything is interchangeable, and in fact, cameras like the Arca Swiss are sold in bits and pieces by default. The “body” is nothing more than an aluminium square on which you start attaching bellows, rails, back holder …. And yes, they use digital backs if you want.

    But in general, digital cameras aren’t like bikes. They’re like laptops, or smartphones. The parts aren’t interchangeable for the same reason most laptop and phone parts are not: making stuff replaceable adds cost, size and weight, so most customers would shun it, and most manufacturers will not bother. And that means no widely-used standard for interconnection, which means that even if you make replaceable parts you’d have few to none parts to actually choose from.

    The Ricoh is interesting, and handling one is pretty pleasant. But I have to say I don’t really get the point. Each lens module basically contains everything needed to be a camera except the screen and controls. Why not just release them with screen and buttons built in? I doubt it would increase the cost very much.

  5. Topslakr

    Some film SLRs do offer a bit more customization than the newer stuff. Some cameras offer backs to take large amounts of film; Some offer interchangeable finders and focusing screens; Some also offer additional parts that can be bolted to their base to add a motor-winder. If you look around a bit you can even find adapters to put a Polaroid back on a 35mm camera. The dozens of film choices aside, you could easily build a nearly one of a kind film SLR that caters to your every need.

    Today with the digital gear though it’s all about building in obsolescence. It’s a real shame. Companies are focusing on their stock price at the detriment of all else.

    I find no shame in pulling out my ‘old’ DSLR when appropriate but I’ve been finding a lot more enjoyment shooting film than I do digital anyway.


  6. Andreas Manessinger

    What would we really need? Interchangeable viewfinders, the option to upgrade the LCD when newer, better types become available, interchangeable sensors of course.

    I would not really need to be able to mix parts from Nikon and Canon. Both companies (and actually the other players as well) are roughly equivalent. You had to wait some time until Nikon could match Canon’s sensors, now they are at least as good. Lens availability is no real problem either. Thus, staying proprietary is OK, an that should make going modular even a possibility to consider for the big companies.

    Dust is an obvious problem. It’s bad while we only change lenses, it would be much worse if everything could be disassembled.

    Another problem is the CPU. Where do you put it? Basically all the parts would need to have a processor or at least some memory with their characteristics, and then the CPU would have to have to match the parts and make the options available in the menus. Ideally you would get some firmware configuration program that could be run on your PC, and that would allow you to configure basic usage options.

    Got a body with two wheels? What do they control while being used in shooting mode? What direction is “up”, what is “down”? Does your body come with programmable function keys? What does wheel #1 control while F2 is pressed? What happens if your reach the end of the scale? Does it stick? Does it begin at the bottom of the scale again? These are thousands of possible combinations! How many users would not be overwhelmed?

    Autofocus is a big problem as well. It is somehow coupled to the viewfinder. You want to be able to see your AF points in the viewfinder, at least optionally. There would have to be a protocol between VF unit and AF unit.

    Now think of having to answer a service call. The user reports that F1 / wheel #2 does not change white balance any more. What do you answer? Fix it yourself in the configuration program? Or is there really something wrong?

    As much as I would love to have such a system, I think it is not going to happen.

  7. keith

    interesting idea being able to get or build a camera to fit our needs be it an dslr or a compact camera/. then users could simply leave off those funky features that are never ever used & concentrate on placing the most needed features & modes in easy to find places instead of buried deep within a menu where they are never found or never found more than once. believe me as an instructor i know – some much needed settings are so difficult to find – drives me & the students crazy trying to find them on some cameras. .

  8. Bryan Davidson


    Thanks for the good deconstruction of the modularity idea. I think modularity is important, and I’d love to see it in a digital camera, but the ideas you outlined show that the negatives probably outweigh the positives.

    What would (and should) be possible, however, is re-programmable firmware so we don’t have to wait for the camera manufacturer to add/change features or improve noise handling. They could provide an API (application programming interface) for the cameras just like Android and Apple do for their smartphones. Imagine downloading a timelapse app or making your own in-camera hdr app that meets your specific level of (to put it politely) “hdr-ness.” Since digital cameras are becoming mini-computers now, I think there is a lot of untapped potential there.

    On the other hand, I have way more fun walking around with a Canonet or 70′s era metal SLR anyway. If I could afford it, an ALPA system would be a blast to put together.

  9. Michael Ririe

    Yes… I too am the totally custom type. If it doesn’t meet my every wish, then it’s less than par. I shoot medium format film a lot, which allows for a lot of customization. I can switch out backs from a 120 roll to a Polaroid back, or even to panoramic 35mm stuff. I can throw on a prism finder, or a waist level finder. I can use a manual crank, or a motorized powered advance crank. I’ve found a lot of satisfaction with this system…. maybe digital will have more of these capabilities eventually!

  10. 箭扣长城

    Yes… I too am the totally custom type. If it doesn’t meet my every wish, then it’s less than par. I shoot medium format film a lot, which allows for a lot of customization. I can switch out backs from a 120 roll to a Polaroid back, or even to panoramic 35mm stuff. I can throw on a prism finder, or a waist level finder. I can use a manual crank, or a motorized powered advance crank. I’ve found a lot of satisfaction with this system…. maybe digital will have more of these capabilities eventually!

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